Is it time for primary schools to get with the program?
English children will soon study how computers work from the age of five. Should Irish schools be following suit? Kim Bielenberg investigates
While teachers, church officials and the Education Minister Ruairi Quinn debate how much religion should be taught in Irish schools, in Britain they are preparing for a quiet revolution.
From next autumn, children in primary schools in England will begin a rigorous new computing curriculum, which starts at the age of five.
English parents who are bewildered by their children's skills with gadgets may be left even more behind from next September.
Under the new curriculum, children will get practical experience of designing and writing computer programs. The English are following Estonia – where it is already part of the curriculum
From the age of five, they will be taught about algorithms – the set of steps followed to complete a computer task. Parents may have to be taught what the word means.
From the age of seven, pupils will learn about how the internet works.
In Ireland, computer programming has not been featured as a subject on the curriculum in Irish schools, either at primary or second-level. However, a new short course in programming and coding will soon be introduced as part of the revamped Junior Cycle in second-level schools.
If they choose the short course, students will learn how to create code for short programming tasks and build web pages. As well as just using computers as a learning tool, pupils will be encouraged to learn how they work.
Dr Sabin Tabirca of the Computer Science Department at UCC says: "We have been calling for the introduction of a computing curriculum in primary school that would start at the age of 10.
"It is part of the curriculum in other European countries and I believe that Irish children are being left at a disadvantage. Parents are screaming for it."
UCC is already piloting its own course, known as MPT Kiddo where children, mostly from sixth class, come into the university to learn about computer programming.
Although computer education is extremely limited in Irish schools, Ireland is at the cutting edge of innovation when it comes to teaching coding outside the classroom.
Coder Dojo classes, organised by volunteers outside school, have spread all over the world, led by the movement's Cork founder, James Whelton. He set up the classes in frustration at the lack of computer education in the traditional education system.
He believes that it is time to proceed cautiously and introduce programming in Irish primary schools.
"Computer science is the single most powerful force for upcoming generations and we need to teach it in a fashion that generates as much passion and understanding as possible," said Mr Whelton.
"If done right, future generations will be able to face any issue. They will be able to see solutions in a completely new light and come up with ideas we can't even fathom right now."
Curriculum planners may be reluctant to introduce computer science at primary level because there is a perception that the timetable is already overloaded
However, some teachers have not waited to introduce the subject in their classes.
Knockaclarig National School near Tralee in Co Kerry is a computerised hub, alive with hand-held gadgets, in the south-west. The school, with only 35 pupils, was recently awarded an accolade as one of the country's Digital Schools of Distinction (see panel).
The pupils at Knockaclarig each have hand-held devices, which are mini-laptops.
As well as using computers as a learning tool, from fifth class, they learn how they work and how to design computer programs.
Like many foreign primary schools that teach computing, Knockaclarig uses a simple coding program called Scratch.
"It is very simple and intuitive," says Principal Tom Roche. "Kids love it and I find that it fits in very well with maths on the curriculum.
"I think it is suitable for all children. Sometimes I have been surprised by the kids who have become very enthusiastic about it."
Using Scratch, children may have to move a cat called Felix across the screen, using simple commands.
The children can customise the background and the cat's appearance, and select its activity by putting blocks in sequence.
Knockaclarig principal Tom Roche says: "It is really like a digital story and it is very creative. The kids can download the program at home."
Coding and programming need not be confined to an elite group of students with high maths proficiency.
Coder Dojo classes outside school have proved popular with children with autism spectrum disorder.
Tom Roche says: "You have to have the right culture in the school to ensure that something like this works.
"We are perhaps fortunate in being a small school. So supplying the equipment is relatively simple and the staff are fully committed.
"You need to have a good infrastructure in the school with decent broadband links. Continuous professional development for teachers is also vital."
The training of teachers in new technology will be a major challenge for English schools as the country introduces its new curriculum. The British Department of Education is creating a network of 'master teachers' with a high level of computer expertise.
"They help with training in their local areas."
Digital excellence rewarded
More than one in five Irish primary schools has applied to become Digital Schools of Distinction since a programme was launched in September of last year.
The award scheme, sponsored by HP Ireland and Microsoft, gives grants to schools to encourage effective use of technology.
Schools that register and are successfully validated are awarded Digital Schools of Distinction status by the Department of Education. The scheme is a public private partnership.
The schools have access to an ICT helpline. They receive a Digital Schools Classroom Kit including a laptop with educational software provided and a range of suitable apps.