Could 2018 be year we make technological education into something better?

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It always seemed odd that we didn’t do IT at my secondary school after year 7 (the first year). We had a rudimentary play around with PhotoShop, made mindmaps and mock web pages – and then it abruptly ceased. The assumption was that we’d pick up the computer skills which we needed along the way.

On the surface, that was largely true: I don’t think that our class was disadvantaged as netizens by the lack of an IT course. And, from glancing at a syllabus for GCSE ICT, we probably didn’t miss out on much: questions about whether text is left or right justified, or knowing the name to a USB, is of limited value (and not just because everything’s on the Cloud now).

But ICT teaching is increasingly more than just about learning the parts of a machine, or even learning to code. Understanding computers and the internet is more than just an academic or abstract skill: it’s practically key to citizenship, and understanding our rights (and how best to safeguard them).

We live in an eminently teachable era for this too: with the onset of GDPR, in just a matter of months, raising a generation to understand the importance of personal privacy is key. Rather than waiting for pupils to be faced with the most unpleasant examples of abuses of trust (in the form of revenge porn), good technological education can directly inculcate wariness about over-sharing online.

The same goes for more complex issues, like algorithms. Granted, Facebook may no longer be the hippest space for youth culture, but its dominance can’t be ignored; nor, in spite of its inability to turn a profit, can Twitter’s. Both of these spaces have algorithms with deeply questionable biases, which allow for the creation of echo chambers – and for deeply unhealthy scrolling habits. A good education wouldn’t tell students not to use these platforms (that would only enhance their counter-cultural appeal): it would instead encourage critical thinking, from an early age. Ignoring the political cycle of defeated parties trying to reach out and become more like their opponents, there is a possibility of avoiding the cognitive dissonance which seems to mark modern politics.

The boons wouldn’t just be for students as consumers – encouraging a better respect for privacy and ethics when it comes to data would also support the companies they might work for or use in the future. Privacy by design is a good idea – in practice. In reality, our current education system rarely prioritises this thinking except in academia or research firms. Having students grappling with these major issues from school could offer a workforce fully committed to the values of good security.

Computing is difficult to understand; the internet is even more so – but that doesn’t mean that we should ignore them, or treat them like a sort of black box, which is inexplicable. By crafting ICT programmes to not merely get across code, but show the power structures and politics behind digital life, we can offer something as valuable as teaching hard sciences, or the humanities, or citizenship – if not more so.

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