Is there an ICT way of thinking?

Is there a way of thinking that has a quality of “ICT-ness”, in the same way as, say, there is an economics way of thinking? To put this another way, are there particular concepts whose understanding are fundamental to what we might call “digital literacy”? In the field of economics, for example, you have to understand the concepts of opportunity cost, scarcity an marginality – all of which words are technical terms in economics, regardless of how they are used in everyday speech.

I’ve thought about this on and off for a long time, but what prompted these thoughts again at this particular time was the learning, at a Royal Society meeting earlier this week, that Nick Gibb, the Deputy Prime Minister, is adamant that only essential knowledge will enter the new slimmed down core National Curriculum. (That was stated by one of the delegates, rather than by the Royal Society.) So it strikes me that now is as good a time as any to try to figure out what knowledge and/or concepts are essential to an understanding of ICT. Whether or not those same bits of knowledge or concepts will be deemed essential to education in general is, of course, another matter.

I suggest that a deep understanding of data is one thing which distinguishes those who understand ICT and those who don’t. It’s something you notice by its absence, as in the following examples.

What you see is NOT what you get

A colleague once asked me if I could look  at a spreadsheet she had created because none of the formulae would work. After a minute or two I realised what she’d done. She had copied the figures from a printed table, and where there were gaps in the table she had entered spaces. This was a clear case of not understanding that a space is a unit of data, and that an empty cell, a cell containing a space and a cell containing a zero are not the same thing.

I’ve seen something similar whereby people align text in a wordprocessor using the spacebar or multiple tabs, rather than single tabs or in the form of a table. Then they wonder why the formatting goes haywire when they print it out, or load it up in a different wordprocessor or on a different computer.

Database fields

When you teach field types, and ask students what field type they would use to contain telephone numbers, they invariably say “the number field type”. That sounds logical, except for two things. First, you won’t be able to enter dashes or other characters. Second, and more important, the whole point of a number field is to enable you to do something with the contents of the field. For example, use the numbers in calculations, or for data validation such as checking that a number entered falls within a certain range. As neither of those applies to phone numbers, the number field is an inappropriate one to use.

If there are indeed concepts which are essential to an understanding of ICT, the case for retaining it as a discrete subject in the curriculum, if not the National Curriculum, becomes stronger I think.

Any views on any of this?

Don't forget to contribute to the National Curriculum Consultation -- deadline: 14th April 2011.