Computer science will be added to the Junior Cert from the next academic year, in the form of a short course in coding.

The course, which will take up around 100 hours, will focus on software development, and schools are advised to use free and open-source software where practical, to keep materials accessible to more students.

At the same time, Minister for Education Richard Bruton has announced new measures which will aim to stop companies- such as marketing geniuses Apple- from keeping their monopolies over students.

The new measures (which also cover school uniforms, books and other supplies) aim to stop schools from insisting on parents buying a certain brand or model of tablet, such as the iPad, which many schools and parents have been pressured into buying for their educational benefits.

There are many websites which claim the benefits of iPads- however many if not all of these ‘pros’ are also features of their generic, Microsoft, or Android competitors.

Minister Bruton said he has set 2019 as a target for the introduction of the larger Leaving Cert computer science subject into schools- meaning that the first students to take the Junior Cycle course would be able to continue to further study without interruption.

The addition of the subject is seen as vital for Ireland’s economic performance and competitiveness in attracting tech businesses. DCU President Brian MacCraith oversaw a report on the teaching of STEM subjects three years ago which made recommendations for improvements, many of which government say they will take on board.

The popularity of coding among Irish children has been cited by government and teachers as a reason for the subject’s introduction at an earlier age- but there is of course a big difference between coding for fun and on passion projects and the larger subject of computer science- which is not all writing code.

Children and teenagers from seven to seventeen can attend Coder Dojos across the country- there are over 200 in Ireland, with a very high concentration in the Dublin area. The Coder Dojo foundation started in 2013 and has spread globally, taking a different approach to teaching the cutting edge subject than has previously been seen in schools.

The average age of Coder Dojo attendees is eleven, and 48,000 kids attended worldwide last year.

When the first computers skills classes were introduced in Irish schools in the late 1990s, classes were cobbled together on using Microsoft Publisher, with entire hours dedicated to teaching how to insert clip art into a party invitation, and Comic Sans was an acceptable font choice.

The new subject reflects a very different attitude to computers. While supporters of the subject say it’s needed to fill a skills gap in modern Ireland, it’s still unclear where schools will find the required number of qualified teachers to introduce the topic to students.

The Coder Dojo annual survey released in February showed that 60% of teaching volunteers were IT professionals, 21% were teachers or volunteers and 18% were students.

The majority of IT professionals supporting Dojo-goers should mean that students are exposed directly to the newest practices- something which might not be possible in a secondary curriculum, as the intersection required- professional IT experience and a teaching qualification- are not common.

In Coder Dojo, the most popular topics for dojos in 2016 were:

  1. 90.9% Scratch, a drag-and-drop, visual-based programming tool developed by MIT for younger students and used in the first stages of MIT’s introductory computer science module, which can be accessed online free on EdX.
  1. 55% HTML/CSS – the building blocks and design blueprints for the web. Unlike Scratch, these are the same tools that adults and professionals currently use- with the addition of Javascript to make more complex and interactive sites.
  1. Followed by Arduino, Raspberry Pi, Python, and Javascript. These cover a vast range of types of computing- from building and controlling robots to working with data or creating animations.

Forbes published an article this month which stated that 56% of US teachers believe computer science should be mandatory in schools. But its author also pointed out that the coding aspects of computer science- often the only part of the subject mentioned in Irish media and by those from non-computing backgrounds- are the least likely to stand the test of time. For those who study computer science in school and don’t follow the direct route into a computing career, the languages they learn such as C++, Python, Javascript, may not be useful or popular in the future.

Unlike other foundation subjects like maths or geography, which students may not go on to pursue careers in, but which will generally continue to be useful and applicable years later, the coding part of computer science will have a short shelf life. As a feeder subject for third level computing studies, the course may have an effect of encouraging more students, but it would at the same time create an even wider gap between the starting skills of computing background students and those from other, non-traditional backgrounds, such as mature students, access students, and those with non-computing leaving certs.

Coding is also a creative subject- a one-size-fits-all approach or a favoured operating system or programming language could be as counter-productive as forcing all art students to paint watercolours.

The Junior Cycle course appears to be open and encouraging to students’ different interests- it remains to be seen how the subject would be continued into the Leaving Cert, and if there is an IT skill shortage in Ireland, how the state intends to recruit the right talent to teach the skills to the next generation, and how a course can be designed which can adapt so quickly to the ultra-fast pace of computing developments.

Ciara Bates