IGCSE ICT. Restoring Respectability by @brc_teach

In September 2013 my Year 10 class started IGCSE ICT. In this blog I look back at the experience and whether it has helped make ICT a more respectable subject.

This is a re-blog post originally posted by Byron Calderwood and published with kind permission.

The original post can be found here.

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I had been teaching GCSE ICT very successfully for over a decade but I felt the need to review what we were doing after controlled assessment replaced coursework.  Pupils found it irrelevant and boring, with more time spent on typing up their projects than learning and applying ICT skills. Coursework projects could be made more interesting but exam boards began setting fixed controlled assessment tasks.  It became a tedious exercise in documentation – taking endless screenshots and cropping them, jumping through hoops that made little sense in order to fulfil criteria. GCSE ICT had lost its way.

There was a second reason.  As a subject, ICT had taken a bashing since the start of 2012 and there was a clear agenda from the Government and the media in favour of Computing and against ICT.  I concluded this was the right time to look at various options with the aim of finding a course that would be right for the pupils at my school.

Computing

I was particularly keen that, whatever course was eventually chosen, it should still have broad appeal and I also wanted make it as accessible as possible – there was still a good market for ICT as an option but not a large appetite for Computing.

European Computer Driving Licence (ECDL)

I had taught ECDL some years ago and looked into this option again. I had always liked the computer-based end of module tests.  Pupils could complete the modules at their own pace with the test results being returned in a matter of minutes.  However, most pupils would complete this in a year.

Digital Applications (CiDA/DiDA)

The prospect of moving from controlled assessment to managing portfolios of work appeared to mean replacing one type of administration for another. The lack of a written exam at the end of the course was a concern. I did, however, like the practical nature of the course and the requirement for some units to be assessed by practical examination.

IGCSE ICT

I noted that our English and Science departments had moved to IGCSE in recent years so I investigated the Cambridge IGCSE ICT.   As soon as I read the assessment components, it piqued my interest:

  • Paper 1 (Theory) – 2 hour written exam based on all aspects of the course (40%)
  • Paper 2 (Practical) – 2½ hour practical test on ‘Document production, data manipulation and presentations’ (30%)
  • Paper 3 (Practical) – 2½ hour practical test on ‘Data analysis and website authoring’ (30%)

The course didn’t include controlled assessment or coursework but two practical exams covering a wide range of software applications.  There was a substantial, but not overwhelming, theory content assessed by a written exam at the end of the course.  The balance between theory and practical seemed better than the existing GCSE specifications.    The more I thought about it, having two practical tests on a computer, under exam conditions, could prove to be a more accurate indicator of ICT ability than a project.  On many levels this seemed promising.

As part of my research, I spoke to a number of former pupils who confirmed many of my suspicions about the GCSE ICT they had taken.  When I gave them an outline of IGCSE ICT they said it sounded interesting – but also more challenging.  I also spoke to another school that had been running IGCSE ICT for a few years and they were positive about the course, but they did point out a few issues to consider:

  • IGCSE courses in general are regarded as more demanding and may affect departmental results
  • The potential risk of technical difficulties during the practical tests
  • Pupil numbers opting for ICT are more likely to fluctuate

I produced a paper for the school’s Curriculum Committee setting out the advantages and disadvantages of each course, ultimately recommending IGCSE ICT.  This was agreed after careful consideration.  I worked hard to sell the course to Year 9 pupils and was pleasantly surprised to see the number of pupils choosing the course actually increase.

Any change of course or specification brings its challenges, but in this case I was genuinely excited about embarking on IGCSE.

Course delivery

The teaching of practical skills is something I always enjoy, but the main challenge was getting pupils to remember obscure skills (importing a text file as slides into a PowerPoint presentation, adding a comment to an HTML file) and master essential-but-tricky skills (changing data types and skipping fields when importing a CSV file into a database).

Most pupils had little previous experience of HTML and had to learn the basics using Notepad and Internet Explorer before moving onto web authoring software (we used Adobe Dreamweaver CS4 but KompoZer is another option worth investigating).  This topic proved to be the most challenging of all and in hindsight it was the correct strategy to cover this topic last so there was less chance it would be forgotten before the practical tests.  HTML is now taught as a topic in ICT lessons in Years 7 and 9, so this won’t be such a big issue in future years.

There are a number of course textbooks on the market and after careful research I settled on “Complete ICT for IGCSE©” by Stephen Doyle, published by OUP.  The second edition is due for release in November 2015.  A useful website for theory is igcseist.info and I also subscribed to the ICT Workout website.

In the lead up to the practical tests I made good use of the ICT Lounge website, particularly the practical workbooks and tutorials.  These were fantastic for revising skills and the checklists helped pupils to identify the skills they needed to work on.

The practical tests were taken at the end of April and thankfully there were no technical difficulties, but I made a note of things to remember for next year:

  • On top of normal invigilating arrangements it was helpful to have a teacher on hand specifically to distribute printouts to pupils.
  • A fluorescent highlighter, preferably yellow, will be needed to highlight HTML code on printouts.
  • From the very start of the course, drill pupils in the use of headers and footers in all of the programs they use (particularly in database reports and HTML documents)
  • Each page of every printout MUST show candidate name, candidate number and centre number – or it won’t be accepted for marking
  • It is advisable for pupils to print as they go along and not wait until the end of the practical test
  • ICT support should be readily available before, during and after the practical tests

Results

IGCSE ICT results are published on the same day as A level results and I headed into school with double the amount of trepidation I would normally have on a results day.  The results were in line with what I expected, but the departmental pass rate wasn’t quite as high as in previous years.  Further analysis revealed the following:

  • Pupils who achieved A* or A did particularly well on the database and website authoring sections of the practical tests
  • Pupils who would normally have scraped an A for GCSE ICT tended to get solid B grades at IGCSE
  • There is no hiding place for candidates who fail to prepare for the practical tests
  • If a pupil does badly on one of the practical tests, it substantially reduces their prospects of achieving grade C or above
  • A pupil cannot retake just one of the practical tests.  They need to retake both practical tests and the written exam, but there is a November exam session for retakes if required.

Respectable?

I found the course enjoyable and fulfilling to teach and I feel this came through in lessons.  The pupils liked the wide range of software and skills that were covered.  The practical tests are a useful unique selling point to both pupils and parents.  Pupil numbers in Year 10 dipped in 2014 but returned to normal this year and I am optimistic that numbers will remain steady in the medium term.

ICT has lost it’s tag of being perceived as a ‘soft’ option because the course is now 100% examined and it’s clearly more rigorous than the previous course.  There has been a small drop in the pass rate but this is more to do with the cohort than the course.  The preparation and planning for the practical tests is time consuming and, at times, stressful – but much less so than controlled assessment.

In a lot of ways, the change to IGCSE has restored the credibility of ICT at my school.  New draft specifications for GCSE ICT will be appearing at some point before first teaching begins in September 2017 and unless I read something that’s along the same lines as IGCSE, I don’t anticipate changing courses.

Cambridge IGCSE ICT is the path to respectability and survival for the subject at Key Stage 4.


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