Monday, 13 December 2010

Surely something wrong here?

I spent a good hour trying to figure out why a deceptively simple-looking device in Excel to colour some rows green and others red to indicate which teams were top and bottom respectively in a table didn't do what it said on the box. It's called conditional formatting and my 12-year old son said he could do it fine in Excel2003 but not Excel2010. I had hardly ever used conditional formatting at all before but eventually worked out how to write the formula needed. (For those intrigued, you had to type something like =h3>m3 which, for some reason, just didn't come naturally!)

The task was all about some team scores in a range of activities. They had to be added up and then the list rows coloured to show the top and bottom teams. A macro was also needed to do some sorting which he managed effortlessly. I remember that macros usually took me a couple of goes as I would click something either at the start or the end which stopped it working or landed up on a blank sheet. Not for the youngster, though - right first time.

After solving the = business my only real contribution was to show him how to make the sheet look cool by changing colours, using some different fonts and hiding virtually everything except the displayed data. He had also quite happily protected the sheet and left unlocked just those cells that a user might change and included some validation rules to ensure someone's favourite team didn't get a sneaky huge score added in.

Today, at a Further Education College, I had cause to look at some assignments that were being issued to students. The topic was related to business information systems and required students to suggest and illustrate methods to display data in a pretty similar way to my son's task.


Except there was no requirement that they could do validation. No requirement for any automatic colouring of cells or smartening of the sheet appearance. Arial, possibly one of the worst-looking spreadsheet fonts apart from Comic Sans, rules OK, apparently, unless you have Office 2007 or later. Not a hint of macros either.

These students are 17, 18, some going on 20. Most of them do not seem particularly dumb, some even give the impression of being pretty geeky and can do things like evade the clutches of the internet filtering system and get extremely high scores in the helicopter game. But not only did they look at me with those vacant expressions that make you wonder whether you've asked them to explain the difference between ought and should and would or explain how the date of Easter Sunday is calculated when I mentioned validation, macros and conditional formatting, many seemed to find the simple task before them a challenge.

These are Level 3 National Diploma Computing students, for heaven's sake! OK, they can do some binary sums that my 2nd year schoolboy doesn't know about but he is so far advanced in comparison on what I call the ICT skills that could be useful in an office environment it's weird. Yes, he's pretty bright but what he's doing at school - in what I call 2nd year (Year 8 I think in new eduspeak) - is what the whole class is expected to achieve, whether they like spreadsheets or not.

I wondered how on earth my daughter, 14, had managed to cope with that as I don't remember tears or dramatic messages on Facebook pleading for help in 2008. Apparently she just did it and hoped for the best and, whilst not enjoying it much and not exactly shining bright on the formulae front, she knew what we were talking about, at least, and had I offered tickets to Matt Cardle in Concert she would have been able to help her little brother in my absence.

Now, the group of National Diploma students are largely similar to most preceding years I can recall. I've never actually taught this topic but it seems that the criteria for passing at Level 3 fall way short of the school's learning outcomes. What on earth is going on? I know standards have slipped but, taken in conjunction with generally appalling written English and research skills which comprise solely Google and Wikipedia it seems we're about to release yet another qualified yet totally unqualified bunch of otherwise pleasant enough people into the world of work.

1 comment:

  1. There is also the fact that ICT and Computing are two massively different subjects.
    Although, I must admit, I too find it hilarious when "Level 3" students cannot do basic ICT tasks.
    On the other end of the spectrum, some may find it incredibly patronising (myself included) when we are forced into doing "Functional Skills", despite achieving more than acceptable grades a GCSE. For example, in a recent "Functional Skills" lesson the subject of the say was Addition and Subtraction, yes, 1+1, not algebra, not trigonometry, but simple "If I have five bananas and give you one, how many do I have?".
    What I fail to understand is why the government seems to think this sort of education is needed? Surely students expected to write complicated programs with thousands of lines of intricate algorithms can do simple tasks such as figuring how much the shopping costs.