UK to Push Computer Science Competency

Britain's Education Secretary Michael Gove has announced that a year from now, students can expect their Baccalaureate exams to include a portion on computer science, joining physics, chemistry and biology as a science for testing purposes. The announcement comes amid an ongoing discussion of both the British exam system and ways to increase students' computer literacy.

Britain's ruling Coalition has been debating educational reform, particularly how to change the comprehensive system of exams that close out secondary education. GCSE exams and the more advanced A-levels are given in a set number of subjects. They include the sciences, mathematics, English, a choice of history or geography, and a foreign language. The language can be classical or modern, and as many as 172 language options are offered.

Gove's Education Ministry has proposed replacing GCSE exams with a new set of tests. Debate goes on about whether to move forward with this replacement, and if so, with what.

In January 2012, the Secretary changed the computer science curriculum from a less challenging information and communications technology (ICT) program to computer programming, as many computer experts and advocates have called for more technical programming education in general education courses. The new decision to include computer science in the Baccalaureate comes in response to this advocacy:

In October, a panel of technology experts, including representatives of Google and Microsoft, called for the inclusion of computer science in the English Baccalaureate.

But having a test at the end of the education won't be enough, computer experts say. Real computer literacy must be comprehensive.

Microsoft's [UK] education director Steve Beswick welcomed the announcement as the "start of a journey" in changing how computer science is taught. He wants the subject to be taught to even younger children, including in primary school.

Microsoft and other technology advocates recommend taking a fresh look at education in the new century. Older models are about standards, individual work, factual memorizing and instructors who direct the learning. As computers become not only the subject but also the mode of learning, education will be collaborative, creative, student-centered, and focused on information exchange.

At the same time, as computer advocates succeed in adding computer science to Britain's small cluster of exams, those who believe the creative arts need a larger place worry that the curriculum will become too rigid. The governing coalition's opposition is quick to point out the problems:

Stephen Twigg, Labour's education spokesman, said: "Adding computer science into the EBacc is too little, too late. Gove's exams still place no value on creative subjects like art, music and drama, and no value on practical subjects like engineering, design and technology and construction."

But the government believes that including computer science outweighs any other possible inclusions. Computer science is not creative in the same way that fine arts are, but it is a less passive study than some other subjects. As Beswick and others have noted, teaching computer science means changing the learning model to active, project-oriented learning.

A Department for Education spokesman said: "We need to bring computational thinking into our schools. Having computer science in the EBacc will have a big impact on schools over the next decade. "It will mean millions of children learning to write computer code so they are active creators and controllers of technology instead of just being passive users."

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