Opinion: What are they teaching the kids?

Sarah Putt looks at the ICT curriculum as school starts for 2011

High school’s back this week and for many first-year students taking the IT option will be their introduction to our industry. When I was a third former, computer studies was a new topic and we were taught COBOL programming. What do they learn now?

I went onto the NZQA website to find out what the criteria was to pass NCEA level one standards in IT-related topics. Level one has replaced School Certificate as the first national qualification for New Zealand students.

There were six IT related topics. The first one, ‘Computing’, appeared to be quite easy. To get three credits for the unit ‘Demonstrate and apply knowledge of a personal computer system’, students had to show an “understanding of ergonomic principles in terms of user physical well-being”. This was explained as “desk dimensions, posture in chair and seating height; feet placement; position of monitor, keyboard, and mouse relative to user; rest periods and exercises”.

So then I looked at the ‘Software development – programming’ topic. There was one unit called ‘Create and use simple command sequences in computer language’. To gain two credits students need to create three simple command sequences in a procedural computer language. Effectively, this is teaching the basic first principles of programming.

Catalyst for computing education

What got me interested in ICT in high schools was the recent online Computerworld article, ‘School’s in for open source advocates’.

It reported on a summer school being held by open-source specialists Catalyst IT, in which 17 students from nine Wellington schools spent a fortnight learning the “basics of IT”.

In the article Catalyst director Don Christie says tools like PHP, Java and Ruby Rails are not being taught in high schools: “A school’s top student in IT will probably be the one who knows how to work a spreadsheet and use Photoshop”.

The article attracted 30 comments. Among them was William Gordon who wrote “We need more people who are taught computing rather than just how to be software users. Most general computer course curricula I have seen are little more than repackaged MS courses.”

I think Gordon’s comment pretty much nails it.

Now, I don’t want to be an NCEA knocker. It is the qualification most of our children are going to sit. But, it has to be robust and we have to believe in it. As such, shouldn’t secondary school be preparing students to be active participants in the ICT industry, not passive users?

Telco service

Mind you, a back to basics approach could be of benefit to some of those working in telco shops. Hunting down microSIMs to test network speeds for an iPad provided a telling glimpse into what the average telco customer has to put up with when seeking to buy new services.

A Telecom XT microSIM was by far the easiest to come by – the shop assistant knew exactly what I wanted, handed me a pack with 200MB of data and charged me $29.95.

I searched in vain for a 2degrees shop, after being told by their outlet Dick Smith they were out of stock. Finally I rang the 2degrees communications manager who emailed me a list of 2degrees stores. Once I located a store, it was easy enough to buy a $20 2degrees microSIM with 100MB of data.

Vodafone was the worst. At a Digital Mobile outlet I explained I had an iPad and I asked for a data-only plan.

The shop assistant took out what looked like a stapler and punched a microSIM out of an ordinary SIM. She then charged me $50 for the SIM and what I thought was 100MB of data.

I contacted the Vodafone communications manager to say I thought $50 was expensive for 100MB, so he looked up the SIM number and discovered that I had an additional 100 minutes of voice calling. Huh?

He very sweetly transferred them onto my regular mobile number.

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