The Invisible Computing Teacher

There was a time when The Computing Teacher in a secondary school was the acknowledged expert in computing. That's why he (usually, he) had all the computers. There were only a few computers in the school anyway and he was the guy to deal with them.

In primary schools, there were basically no computers so nobody cared. Then, later, there was one computer on a trolley and it lived in the classroom of whichever teacher cared enough to stay after hours to make it work and keep it working.

Later still, and this is the situation today, the local authorities got their act together and locked everything down. Now, nobody cares because it's impossible to get anyone to do anything without vogonesque bureaucracy. I've heard tales of teachers going out of school to McDonalds in their free periods because the school network is so restricted that the free WiFi in McDonalds is much more conducive to actually getting their work done. I can't imagine how many contraband MiFis and 3G dongles are used in schools each day just to get something working.

Anyway, the point is that the Computing Teacher was the expert. That technical role is being diminished by centralised control from local authorities but, in principle, the computing teacher is still the expert in educating with computers.

There was a time (last year) when a big part of my role was to teach children skills which could then be of use in other subjects. This was partly because I knew the various apps a lot better than any other teacher and partly because the other teachers didn't have time to spend three weeks teaching an app before they could teach their lesson.

I don't know how much longer this role will exist. Already, I'm no longer in control of the set of software that we teach with. Yes, I know what we're using and I get it installed, but there's no way that I have used or somehow approved all these apps. There are several apps on our iPads that I have never used.

I'm no longer the expert and that's great. The individual subject teacher is now the expert in teaching digitally in their class. I don't roll in and tell them which apps we're going to use any more.

Why has this happened? I don't fully know but I suspect there are a number of reasons. The first reason is that software has gone mainstream, except that we call software "Apps" now.

The idea of acquiring additional software for your computing device has become so straightforward and non-threatening to normal computer users that instead of pushing new software into the school, I'm now trying to hold back the demand for software to keep it manageable.

Another reason is something that I'm trying to correctly articulate and I haven't yet found the best words. The thing is that, when you use an app on an iPad, the iPad becomes that thing. Maps makes the iPad a map. iBooks turns it into a book. Brushes turns it into a sketch pad. I feel that teachers aren't looking for "new software that I can run on this computing device", rather that they're asking "can I make this iPad into something else useful for my teaching?".

It's worth pausing for a moment to fully realise what a sea-change this is in educational technology.

So, what's left for the Computing Teacher? I really don't know. Do we move away from skills and towards more of the Hard Computer Science content? Maybe, but I don't yet know how you keep that interesting for the four years from S1-S4 until they sit an exam in Computing Studies. I particularly don't know how you keep that interesting at the current rates of curriculum review.

Do we even have "Computing" classes any more?

Perhaps, the future role of a 'computing teacher' is to act as a consultant or team-teacher with other subjects. I would much rather teach about Wikipedia's structure, history and reverting alongside an English teacher who's teaching about sourcing and bias in writing than in some dry, contrived example lesson of my own.

I'd love to teach about universal computer accessibility alongside the drama teacher who's teaching about how disabled people experience the world.

I'd rather teach about spreadsheets alongside a science teacher who's trying to explain how to capture data from experiments than in some "let's pretend we're running a shop" Computing lesson.

We need to differentiate between "learning about Computing" and "learning how to use computers". The status quo ante of treating those different experiences as two aspects of one subject is hopelessly broken in a world where digital tools are as commonplace as paper and pencil.