7 Essentials for a Great Computing Course

7 Essentials for a Great Computing Course

If you find yourself in the position of having to set up and run a new Computing course in school, where do you start? Here are seven factors that I consider to be essential.

Safety first

Everyone should feel safe in the classroom, not just from physical dangers such as trailing wires, but also from being shouted down or drowned out by other students (such as girls sometimes experience from the boys), being shown disrespect, or being subjected to the experience of stumbling upon racist websites or pornography, perhaps because of a lack of appropriate filtering.

Because even otherwise civil and civilised adults sometimes become feral when online, keeping safe and being respectful to others are things that have to be taught rather than assumed.

The curriculum must be challenging

The course should stretch students. A useful concept here is Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development. A student is regarded as being in the ZPD when they reach a point where they can’t solve the problem on their own, but it’s not completely beyond their capabilities. With a little help from their peers or the teacher, they can master the problem and continue to make progress.

I tend to think of the ZPD as a kind of halfway house between too easy and impossible. Setting work that the student can complete in no time at all will probably serve only to bore them senseless. On the other hand, setting a problem that appears insurmountable could mean that they never even start.

The course must have perceived value

In one school I went to as the new Head of Computing, there was a course running that the students themselves described as being for dummies. They therefore regarded themselves as dummies.

My response was to transfer them to a much more challenging and, crucially, esteemed course. However, I also entered them for the ‘dummies’ course. Why? Because if they failed to achieve a grade on the more challenging course they would at least come out of the end of several years’-worth of schooling with something to show for it. And if they did do OK on the course I introduced, they’d have an extra certificate as a bonus.

Interestingly, and as I expected, when I put them on the better course they stepped up to the plate, grew in self-esteem, and demonstrated to themselves and everyone else that they were not dummies after all.

Incidentally, I should also add that if you find yourself in the position of teaching a ‘dummies’ course with no possibility of offering an alternative, at least straight away, explore ways in which you can give the course some value-added.

For example, could you introduce some input from a local business, such as visits to their place of business, a day of ‘real life’ games, or even simply talks at the school from their top experts?

How about getting together with a local college or university to see how some extras could be inserted into the course, with an accreditation fro the college or university at the end of it?

There should be a clear progression pathway

I think courses that can be seen as part of a larger journey have higher value, and therefore higher perceived value, than ones that don’t.

For example, can it be a gateway to a more advanced course? Could it pave the way for an apprenticeship of some kind?

The teachers should be experts

In England, when it became clear that there were not going to be enough teacher experts in Computing to teach the subject, someone suggested that teachers didn’t need to be experts. How come? Because they could ‘facilitate’ instead. The students could more or less teach themselves, with the teachers there just to .. erm, well I don’t really know. I wrote an article about it called We need ICT teachers, not facilitators, which I think expresses my views on this fairly clearly.

Long story short, how can you even facilitate a lesson, whatever that means, if you don’t understand enough about the subject to help students get to the next level or to check whether they’ve understood what they’ve been studying?

And let’s face it: Would you allow into your home an electrician who hadn’t been taught, but who taught themselves while someone who knew nothing about electrics ‘facilitated’? No, I didn’t think so.

I’m not suggesting that only those with a degree in Computer Science should be allowed to teach. If you have keen teachers who are prepared to learn, you can help them by sending them on or providing really good courses, and by providing excellent lesson materials and in-class support.

The classroom should be a stimulating environment

For me, that means anything but row upon row of computers with nobody talking to each other. There should be areas for collaboration, reference materials and interesting and useful stuff on the walls. I’ve written about to create a stimulating classroom environment in 8 elements of a stimulating computing classroom.

Appropriate equipment

Note that I did not write ‘most expensive, up-to-date equipment’. The equipment in, or available for, a computing classroom should be fit for purpose. That is, it should allow the students to do what they need to do, and what they want to do, in order to get the best possible results they can. If the equipment does not allow them to show what they can do, then your assessment of their abilities and understanding will probably be suspect to some extent.

If your computing course satisfies these requirements, you’re doing a great job!

Terry Freedman’s book, Education Conferences: Teachers' Guide to Getting the Most out of Education Conferences, is now in its second edition, and is available at https://www.amazon.com/Education-Conferences-Teachers-education-conferences-ebook/dp/B01M74ZOX0/