Sunday, 19 January 2014

Straddling the Divide

I usually blog here to work out my thinking on a variety of education and technology situations I come across.  This one is no different.  I just read a series of suggestions for dismantling computer studies at our school.  I'm honestly curious as to the intention behind these suggestions, but in the meantime I'm trying to get the bees out of my head on this subject...

My school is odd in that it has a computer studies department.  This department is a combination of technology focused computer engineering credits (ICE/TEJ) and theoretical/math focused computer science (ICS) credits.  That our school combined these two very different disciplines into a single department has been both challenging and very forward thinking.

There is a push on now to align our headships with those of other schools.  Since the idea of a department that combines all aspects of computer technology under a single headship hasn't happened anywhere else, the urge is to dismantle computer studies.  The thinking behind this doesn't show a great understanding of what the computer subjects are (it was suggested the whole department just get put into business studies - a department that neither side of computer studies has anything to do with).  WIth so few people understanding what the fundamental computer subjects are, it makes it challenging to explain how things might evolve.  Ignorance drives many management decisions around digital technology education.

Trying to run computer studies has been a tricky ride.  Our computer science teacher only comes to our school for a semester, so the courses only run in the second half of the year.  On top of that other teachers aren't lining up to teach comp-sci.  Computer science would be better served in our school by being placed in our mathematics department and being taught by a variety of teachers, but then those teachers qualified in it should want to teach it and I get the sense that very few do.  

Computer science has been held captive by some strange teacher scheduling.  Attaching it to a larger department would be healthy for it.  I've tried to make moves in how and who teaches it, but nothing seems to have worked.  I'm frustrated and ready to hand it off.

Computer engineering is a hands-on technology course, much like auto-shop or manufacturing programs.  This course of study focuses on electronics and information technology.  Compared to computer science it's much more of a hands-on building and experimentally focused subject; it would logically belong with other technology credits.

The argument that we should re-align our headships with other schools feels like a step backwards to me though.  In five or ten years would our students be better served by a strong, comprehensive computer department, or by a traditional and arbitrary split in the subject?  Unfortunately, combining abstract mathematically focused computer programming with real-world engineering isn't easy, especially with how Ontario has handled teacher qualification in the subject.

Up until the past decade, computer science was the only computer qualification.  Like the guys in Big Bang Theory, the vast majority of computer science teachers have very strong theoretical backgrounds in the mathematics behind programming, but little experience in actually making computers work.  When computer studies was established as a technology course those theoretical computer science teachers were grand-fathered in as computer engineering teachers, though many of them had never installed a CPU in their lives and would have no idea where to even begin.  Asking them to provide onsite information technology support would be an impossibility for many of them.

That tech-ed certification took a mountain-load of paperwork
including industry certifications and proof of years of industry
experience.  If you were comp-sci when they brought it in, you
just got the certification...
So here we are in 2014 with many computer studies teachers who actually have little or no experience with the mechanical side of computing, though they have been given the OK to teach it.  This will eventually go away as those grand-fathered comp-sci teachers retire and future teachers will be expected to actually have an industry technology background in computers if they want to teach engineering.  In the meantime we've further muddied an emergent subject area that holds the key to producing  technologically fluent students who can function in the modern workplace.

What I suspect will happen with our forward thinking computer studies department is that it will be split and sent to math (comp-sci) and technology (comp-eng), and the onsite fix-it teacher role will not be considered a headship even though it manages just as much budget and far more equipment than any single department head.  This might be better for comp-sci, which has been dead-ended in our school as far as scheduling goes.  I don't think comp-eng will be hurt by moving to the tech department, so the splitting of the subjects into other areas doesn't really bother me, though it does make me wonder if we're moving in a direction opposite to social expectation.

I've been thinking about computer studies in terms of a specialization as well as a general fluency.  Perhaps future computer studies streams will include general technology fluency credits as well as specializations in engineering and coding, but I doubt it.  With computer fluency being a school (society?) wide expectation as well as the traditional fracture between computer science and computer mechanics, I fear that management energy will be spent on dividing and diminishing a subject that should instead be taking a central place as an integrated, adaptive department that produces 21st Century fluent graduates.