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« 7 Ways to make IT real: 6 Use what you got | Main | 7 Ways to make IT real: #4 Use external organisations »

7 Ways to make IT real: #5 Be realistic

One sure-fire way to turn pupils off computing and ICT is to set tasks that are either unrealistic in themselves, or contain unrealistic elements.

As an example of the former, I once came across an activity in which you selected your nail varnish colour from a database. Now, I’m not a girl, so I don’t really know about these things, but all I can say is that I have known lots of females and, as far as I know, none of them uses a database to figure out what colour nails to have.

Now, I will concede that in certain circumstances, a database may well be necessary. I imagine celebrity pop stars who have hundreds of outfits could need one, and a shop specialising in make-up would use one. But I can’t see that being within the normal day-to-day experience of most girls. (Do leave a comment if you think I am wrong about this. I'm a man, so what do I know?)

Here are a couple of examples of unrealistic elements. The “unrealism” tends to occur because the task doesn’t take into account what happens, or how people behave, in real life.

There is a good article which makes this point, mentioned by Mark Chambers, Chief Executive of Naace, in a discussion list recently. The article is Unhappy Truckers and Other Algorithmic Problems, and is well worth a read.

Another example: I was going to buy a combination lock for use when I go swimming. The person in the shop told me that wouldn’t be much use, because there are only a few possible combinations so someone could easily crack the code. I worked out that he was wrong. In theory, there are 10,000 possible permutations. But then I realised: what happens in practice is that all you have to do is slowly turn the numbers in each row until you feel or hear it click. It takes about two minutes to get the lock open. Unless of course the £5 lock has been built to the highest security standards. I doubt it somehow.

That example is not directly related to computing. However, it’s a good illustration, I think, of the fact that what is true on paper, and what really goes on in real life, can be two different things.

What this means is that, when you set work, or evaluate a pupil’s efforts in constructing a program or a spreadsheet model or whatever, efficiency is not really enough. It may be necessary, but is certainly not sufficient.

Indeed, in order to reflect the real world, it may even be necessary to introduce an element of “inefficiency”.

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