Saturday, June 18, 2011

Hobson's Choice?

I've not written any posts for months. Too many challenges at school with OFSTED breathing down our necks and too many other calls on my time. Also, to be honest, at times I've been struggling to remain optimistic both about my own practice and the state of ICT in education in general. However the fog is starting to clear a little and it's time to start thinking about planning for next year. By far the biggest decision I have to make is what to do about the core ICT course for KS4. 

Currently we are delivering OCR Nationals as core ICT for all of year 9 and 10 for one hour a week and BTEC IT for Practitioners as an option for year 10 and 11. As I've previously written I find OCR Nationals to be all that is wrong with ICT qualifications - students following a ticklist, taking screen shot after screen shot to prove what  they already know. It was depressing to hear from a fellow ICT HoD that her school was having to resubmit their unit 1, in part,  because the students didn't have a screen shot of having opened a file ( to join the screen shots of finding a file and selecting a file to open ). Similarly we have been picked up in the past for not having a screen shot of before the student has created a folder or showing what happens when you put the wrong password into a password protected document. What possible educational value does this serve? 

So I've been looking for alternatives most of the year. The first thing I had to find out was whether I had a choice to make. With the eBacc not including ICT and the future of vocational qualifications in the balance post Wolf Report there are tales on the internet of schools dropping core ICT at KS4. Given some of the difficulties we've experienced this year with reluctant recruits I wouldn't be totally heartbroken if SLT went for this option. However I received assurances that core ICT would remain and that I was free to decide what course to deliver.

So over to me. Got to admit an early contender is do nowt ( as a former project manager I was always told that you should give this option serious consideration ). When I started as subject leader in September every single course was new to me - OCR Nationals ( old and new spec ), AS Edexcel Applied and at my instigation the new spec for BTEC ICT Practitioners. I had to write all these courses plus a total rewrite of year 7 and 8. I'm tired and I don't want to write anymore courses this year. We need a year of stability without more changes. Added to which I have a cast iron excuse - there has been no decision by the government re vocational courses - what's the point of writing another course that might have to be scrapped once the government finally get their act together?

However in my heart I know that this is a truly poor course that adds little to students knowledge and understanding of ICT. And it is unlikely to survive post Wolf report. OCR have already said that the last registration in it's current form is August next year. Can I in all conscientiousness subject another year group to this course? And on a purely practical note we currently have 17 level 2 classes on 100% coursework courses being delivered and marked by just two teachers - the marking load is crippling.

So what to put in it's place? I've blogged previously about trying to combine Functional skills and the Diploma linked level 2 project. My concern with this is putting the whole year group through a 2 hour exam. Even if there is a level 1 and 2 option the logistics of putting over 160 students through an exam that requires access to ICT suites with no more than 15 students to a room in a one week window is challenging to say the least. Also the course would need to be very carefully written to ensure a meaningful course. 

I really like BTEC First IT Practitioners which is what we deliver as an option at KS4. You can make it a really techie course by choosing the computer systems and installing hardware options. It is also flexible enough to go for a more creative option with animation and computer game design. For a couple of my students it's also a business course by choosing units such as the Doing business online unit. However it is not suitable for core ICT. In the time available ( one hour a week for 2 years ) we could only offer the compulsory first unit - Communicating in the IT industry and one optional unit which would not give a very rounded course. Also unless we also ran the level 1 option it would not be suitable for the whole cohort. Given that we teach mixed ability groups this could be difficult to manage.

I've had a look at BTEC IT Users which is a possible contender. At level 2 is has a 1/2 GCSE equivalent Award ( 70-80 GLH ), a 1 GCSE equivalent Certificate ( 120-130 GLH ) and a 3 GCSE equivalent Diploma ( 280-285 GLH ). There are also foundation and level 1 options available. There are 3 fundamental units which cover Functional skills so could put higher ability students in for the exam. However these are not compulsory and there are a wide range of units to choose from, including Using Collaborative Technologies and a Specialist Software unit which allows you to use any software to meet the criteria ( Scratch or other game design software for example ). According to the flyer it has been developed in consultation with employers to address skills gaps. My thinking if we go for this option is an initial unit taught to all students and then using a google site and the VLE to offer range of units that students can work more independently on. This would allow the more able students to achieve the higher awards and allow them to tailor the course to their own interests. However there seems to be little in the way of resources available from Edexcel ( few model assignments and the only text book available is foundation and level 1 ) and it would mean a lot of work in developing the assignments. It's also 100% coursework so no let up in our marking load. I emailed Edexcel a couple of weeks ago querying whether a student could be entered for both the BTEC IT User and BTEC Practitioner course and have not received a response so far. As I've no plans to change our option course this is a crucial piece of information. 

The BCS Digital Cre8tor course is a course I have a soft spot for. It has modules on animation, photography, videoing, audio and moving image language as well as units on creating DVDs, multimedia presentations and sharing online. All the resources are available online and students are able to work independently to complete the projects. It has 1/2, 1 and 2 GCSE options and is an engaging course which also lends itself well to enrichment day and after school activities. However it covers none of the MS Office / traditional ICT skills, a good thing in some ways but it is preparing the students sufficiently for using ICT in other subjects and in the world of work? It would also cause some logistical challenges re practical work.

The most controversial option I'm considering is the EDCL also from BCS. Prior to becoming a teacher I worked for HSBC for 13 years and the bank sponsored all employees to take the course. It is well known and well regarded by employers and covers all the basic skills required for ( non IT specialist ) employment. The Complete Learning Solution package is £55 per student ( OCR Nationals is £42.50 ) and includes online resources, unlimited access to diagnostic tests and exam fees for each of the 7 units ( resits £5 ). Exams are online and on demand and there is no coursework hence reducing the workload for the department. The first 3 units are at level 1 and result in a certificate of ECDL Essentials. These units cover basic housekeeping / file management ( a weakness of many students ), using the internet and emails and safety and security. Certification at this stage means that even with the whole cohort taking the course they should all come out with something ( OCR Nationals minimum grade is a Pass at level 2 ). The next 4 units are at level 2 and cover Word Processing, Spreadsheets, Presentations and Improving Productivity with IT. My thinking if we went for this option is to use the diagnostics to identify gaps in knowledge and concentrate on teaching students what they do not know rather than getting them to prove what they already know ( a key OFSTED criticism of ICT teaching ). With the online exams on demand more able students could fast track through the course leaving time for more engaging activities. Ideally this could be Digital Cre8tor ( though cost may well be a factor here as DC would be an additional £39 per student ). So why is it a controversial option? Possibly because there is no figleaf of higher order thinking skills or 'engaging' projects to work on. It's a skills training course pure and simple and as ICT teachers we don't like to see ourselves as simply MS Office application trainers. If you've read any of my previous posts you will know that it is antithesis of everything I'm trying to achieve as a teacher. And yet this year trying to cram a cohort of reluctant year 10 students through the 1 GCSE OCR Nationals in one hour a week ( with very little work having been completed in year 9 ) I am often not even achieving the training of MS applications objective. Many of my students probably could not complete the same task independently a week later - we have simply produced the screen shots required to obtain the qualification. Maybe ECDL is the more honest qualification - it does what it says on the can and doesn't pretend to be anything more. 

I've other options still to research. Nick Jackson has suggested MS Office Specialist Certification or Adobe certification. GCSEs I've discounted as a whole cohort core option but maybe I need to look again. Trouble is I'm running out of time and may end up with the default 'do nowt' option of another year of OCR Nationals. 

Any comments or suggestions much welcomed.


  1. Great blog. Gives a real insight to different ICT programs available.


  2. Great insight Donna. Good to hear the full story as I came into the discussion a little late the other night. But I stand by what I said: ECDL is not a course for secondary school except possibly as an extension activity. It has nothin to do with ICT education as should be provided in school. It is merely a certificate of proficiency in being able to do certain admin skills with standard office software. And unless someone can show me some way they have built significant learning and engaging lessons around it then I doubt I will ever change my view on this.

    Nevertheless Donna, you are faced with a dilemma and it is a challenging one. The biggest hurdle it looks to me is the one hour a week. But there are other significant factors such as varying abilities of students, marking workload etc, that cannot be ignored. And the course choices to fit your situation are not wide nor will any of them solve all your problems.

    However I do think it is worth addressing the OCR Nats views you have before looking for the best solution. I agree it has some major flaws and there is no doubting that it has led to over inflation of grades. Yet, the new spec goes a long way to address this. What you get for what you do now means there is more parity with other courses out there. Yet, the focus of your dislike for the course is the ticklist/prove what they already know mentality. There is some element of truth to this and there are many schools using such horrible approaches to the course as this. That was not the intention though. That is an approach, an interpretation and both are subject to change by the teachers teaching the course. You can teach good IT theory and skills and still do OCR Nats. I know cos I do it and just got outstanding from OFSTED doing it. The tick sheet of a student dshowing something becomes very mush secondary to what is actually going on for the most part.

    Feel free to come and have a look (electronially or in person) at the VLE of resources I have put together to enable this to happen and I will show you kids work that follows this up. And you know I will gladly give you my time to go through it wih you in any way you choose.

    So, I guess I am telling you to do nowt sort of. The new spec is not nowt though cos it eliminates a lot of those issues re screenshots you referred to. But the downside to this option is the marking load will still be there and it will be demanding to get students a half gcse in the time given. But it can be done. That to me is your best option.

  3. Thanks for the comments Nick. Part of me is embarrassed to be considering ECDL but I haven't totally discounted it. Th impact of the massive marking load means that I'm having to do all the resource development myself. And a half GCSE is not going to wash - we have to deliver a full GCSE in one hour a week. I was maybe understating things when I said I wouldn't be heartbroken if we didn't have core ICT - to be honest I don't want it. I can't do a proper job in the time available and I've lost year 9 from KS3 which is where things could start to get interesting. If we add to this the fact that year 7 and 8 are taught cross curricular ( ICT, PSE and RS ) by mainly non-specialists and I'm feeling totally hamstrung in raising achievement. This blog post was an attempt to marshal my thoughts and get some ideas from others on how to decide on a way forward.

  4. If it's any consolation we're struggling with very similar challenges in the work based learning sector where we do nothing but vocational qualifications -- this obsession with screen shots and ticking boxes in particular runs through all of the assignment driven qualification offerings from City and Guilds and OCR.

    We've also been stung by the ever changing standards and funding so are also at the moment going with the ;change nowt' until we have to!