New to teaching computer science? Help is at hand…

Subject: Computing
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Computer science is a key discipline, and a rapidly evolving one – Keri Allan explores how teachers, regardless of their background, can keep themselves at the cutting edge

We live in an increasingly digitised and connected world where students are growing up surrounded by mobile phones, tablets, smart TVs and augmented reality. What’s more, with the rise of the Internet of Things (IoT) allowing more devices than ever before to talk to each other, it’s clear that computing can no longer be considered esoteric.

In our ever more digitally focused world, computer science is a key discipline that students must embrace. It’s no longer good enough for them to simply be comfortable using technology, they need to truly understand how it works.

In the way it addresses the challenges and opportunities offered in today’s technology-led world and helps students become workplace ready for the future, computer science is now considered the ‘fourth science’; a core discipline that will provide young people with the fundamental principles of computation as well as coding skills.

Today’s computer science curriculum is designed to give students the necessary skills to understand how computers and computer systems work, how they are designed and how they are programmed. Both academic and practical, it has been developed to teach students the computing principles they need in order to understand computing systems and create their own, allowing them to solve real-world technical problems.

Central skills

Clearly computer science isn’t an isolated discipline – it touches a huge swathe of our world, influencing and advancing many different areas from biology and psychology through to business, economics and linguistics.

Providing students with the core computer science skills helps prepare them for the technical challenges of the future, but also teaches them a wide range of transferable skills such as problem-solving, logical reasoning and computational thinking.

These skills provide a great base for students’ future careers – The Tech Nation 2016 report highlights that digital jobs and activity are becoming ever more important in traditionally non-digital areas of the economy, from retail to financial services and the public sector.

It points out that the digital tech economy currently provides 1.56m jobs in the UK and moreover, that job growth in the digital tech economy is 2.8 times faster than the rest of the economy with the three biggest areas being in app development, data management and analytics and hardware, devices and open source hardware.

This is backed up by a UK Commission for Employment and Skills (UKCES) forecast stating that 1.2m web development and programming jobs will need to be filled by 2022. All positive signs for future career opportunities, but it’s important to remember that this is bigger than just individuals – creating a pipeline of talent is key to the UK’s continued success in business and innovation.

Expert voices

The importance of computer science in our curriculum is widely understood, then, but even so we face a big problem – there’s a shortage of computer science graduates moving into teaching. The result has been that a number of unqualified teachers have become required to take on the subject, adding even more pressure to an already beleaguered workforce struggling to keep its head above water.

Even if you’re confident in the use of technology in your professional and personal lives, teaching computer science is a whole different ball game. Teachers may feel it’s difficult to keep up to speed with a subject that moves forward so quickly, with students who are perhaps more tech-savvy than themselves.

Simply put, when many teachers don’t consider themselves particularly experienced in coding, computer systems or computer design, the idea of teaching the subject can be hugely daunting.

The truth of the matter is that the majority of today’s computer science teachers haven’t received any formal training or have any industry experience. Often from unrelated backgrounds and mainly self-taught, they are struggling to deliver the computing curriculum. This isn’t helped by the fact that many schools don’t have the funding to release these teachers to attend further training.

At the end of the day it’s going to be down to the teachers themselves to invest in their own learning; indeed, many are already working hard to upskill themselves in order to ensure that their students get the best possible education, and access to all the opportunities they deserve. The good news is that a growing range of resources and organisations are now at hand to offer support to this new cohort of computer science teachers.

CPD support

Proactive teachers can head online and try out basic programming with free access to languages such as MIT Scratch or App Inventor before moving on to a more ‘classic’ language – again via one of the many free courses that are available online.

Many are also undertaking part-time continuing professional development (CPD) courses in their own time to improve their knowledge, such as those run by Computing At School (CAS).

A great resource for all computer science teachers irrelevant of experience, CAS offers support in the form of local hubs where teachers can meet to share their experiences and best practice, an online forum where teachers provide each other with support and guidance, the CAS Tenderfoot project designed to provide subject deep and resource-rich CPD for those teaching computer science at Key Stage 3, a teachers’ conference and a myriad of downloadable resources and ideas. A grassroots organisation, CAS is free to anyone with an interest in computing education, and currently has an impressive membership of over 23,000 teachers, university academics, examiners and industry professionals.

Support comes in many forms though, including the BCS’ scholarship scheme, teaching resources from QuickStart Computing and the Network of Teaching Excellence in Computer Science (NoE) and Plan C, which provides CPD to teachers in England and Scotland, to name but a few. Plus we’re already seeing positive results – in the most recent NoE update it was revealed that teachers who receive CPD from NoE report their confidence in teaching computing has increased by an average of 88 per cent.

Positive action

It’s an exciting time to be a computer science teacher. Rather than fear changes that are happening within technology education why not embrace them and take the opportunity to develop your own computing skills? As well as helping create the next generation of technologists and IT practitioners you’ll also be able to make better use of technology in your own life.

Teachers don’t need to feel like they’re learning along with the students. It may be a steep learning curve for those from other backgrounds, but the perceived barriers to becoming a computer science teacher can easily be overcome thanks to a growing support network from across the computing industry, academia and professional organisations.

Qualified success

Teachers who proactively upskill with regard to delivering the new computing curriculum can become accredited by professional organisations in recognition of their acquired capabilities and knowledge. For example, the BCS Certificate in Computer Science Teaching (www.bcs.org/category/18265) helps teachers who do not have formal teaching qualifications in computing demonstrate competence, allowing them to progress and/or gain recognition of their computer science skills, knowledge and teaching expertise.

By evidencing their CPD and skills, focusing on teacher reflection, programming capability and classroom practice, this certificate gives computer science teachers the chance to achieve a professional qualification from BCS, The Chartered Institute of IT, which acknowledges they have the pedagogical expertise required to teach this subject.

Schools need to know their teachers have the appropriate knowledge to teach their pupils – something accreditation such as this provides.

About the author

Keri Allan has over 15 years’ experience as a freelance journalist, copywriter and editor.