There is a sense of complete wonder at the insides of a computer, and it’s something I find both worrying and surprising. I am of the first generation for whom computers have been standard items in our homes for most, if not all, of our lives. From the day I was born back in 1986, I can’t recall not having a computer in my house. From my dad’s early Apple through an Amiga 1200 to countless PCs and laptops (not to mention many, many video game consoles), I have always had a computer. I can recall the first computer at my primary school: a single computer with a tiny green and black screen that served over 100 kids well. I recall equally well the high tech computer labs of my high school. However, despite the increase in facilities at all schools over the past decades, I fear that computer education is fundamentally failing our children.
When I was at school, we did learn a lot about how to use computers. We were taught how to type, draw pictures in Paint, and use basic software. Later came lessons on spreadsheets, databases, and advanced word processing. These were all useful things to learn that I have carried with me ever since, but they’re not enough. At no point did we ever once look inside a computer. We were never shown what a motherboard looked like or told what it did. We were never taught how to install a piece of hardware – even something as fundamentally simple as installing a PCI card into an open slot.
A few months ago I bought a new desktop computer (our current one had been gradually dying and upgrading the whole system would have cost more than buying new). This left us with that annoying quandary of what to do with the old machine, which although old and with a dodgy hard drive, had many perfectly functional parts left. I harvested the bits that I could use in our new machine, mostly additional USB ports and a WIFI adapter, then dumped the tower under the bed until I could figure out what to do with it.
Last week a message went up on my village’s private Facebook page from a local whose computer had fried: he was seeking new parts. After a few messages, he bought the old one machine from me minus the hard drive and a few other bits and bobs. Whilst I was taking the tower apart to remove the hard drive, my mum called and asked what I was doing. “Oh, just removing the hard drive from our old computer,” I told her matter-of-factly. I may as well have said I was performing brain surgery.
My mother is probably not the best example to use here as her own computer generally has to be excavated from piles of dumped “stuff” on the semiannual occasions where she decides to check her emails. However her reaction is identical to that which I experience from most people of any age when I mention that I’m happy to mess about inside my computer–utter amazement.
My entire knowledge of the inside of my computer came from my Uncle Jim–whom I watched reinstall a modem back in 1999–that and Google, of course. At this point, nearly every home has a computer in it, often more than one, yet millions of people couldn’t begin to tell you what goes on inside one. When I took driving lessons a few years ago, one of the subjects on the “syllabus” was the car’s engine–it’s part of the UK driving test. I was expected to be able to identify the radiator, oil tank, and screen wash reservoir, and be able to show how to check my oil and brake fluid levels, top up my screen wash, and check my tire pressures. These are considered basic skills I should know to be able to maintain my car. Why are such similar “basic skills” not being included in computer science lessons? We weren’t even shown what the Control Panel did!
It’s not just the internal mechanics of computers that are being ignored, either. At high school I was taught some basic HTML. When I say basic, I really mean that we were taught: how to add in a picture, link to another page, change fonts and colours…and that was about the limit. At no point did we have lessons about servers and hosting websites.
IT is one of the most important industries around the world. The design and maintenance of websites, databases and servers, not to mention security, is fundamental to business, banking, government, and all other sectors–yet we’re not giving our children any insight into this world at school.
It is hard to get stats on the IT industry because a) government still doesn’t have a good category to put us in and b) we are something of a vertical–supporting other industries more than being one in our own right.
However the figures she hears generally suggest that IT contributes around 10% of the UK’s GDP–and that is not a figure to be sniffed at.
I had two hours of computer science a week at high school for four years. That works out to over 300 hours in the classroom. How is there not time to include this material on the syllabus? The IT sector is dangerously unstable right now. The “dot com” millionaire boom saw people assume that working in the industry was a route to easy money and they flooded in as with any gold rush. I am certainly not saying that learning how to write Python or install a new Wi-Fi adapter is the path to financial success; it simply astounds me that in such an important industry that is so present in all our lives, our children are only being taught how to write a letter on Word.