Fast policy networks in the construction of the computing curriculum

Ben Williamson


Computing has replaced ICT in the English National Curriculum, bringing an emphasis on Computer Science, learning to code, and computational thinking into schools. For the last couple of months,  Bethan Mitchell and I have been conducting a small-scale research project to detail how government policy on the computing curriculum was supported by a messy network of non-governmental organizations, actors and material objects, which is now also supporting its subsequent enactment. This has built on an earlier documentary study, published in Critical Policy Studies, which mapped parts of the policy network behind the curriculum and its public statements. In our new work, we’ve been conducting interviews with key people that occupied the network and sought to  get insiders’ perspectives on the development and enactment of computing curriculum policy. In this post I outline a few observations emerging from the interviews, which we will be analysing more thoroughly in the new year.

Speeding up policy
Perhaps one of the most notable things about the introduction of computing in education policy is the speed with which it became part of the official prescribed curriculum. A fairly niche concern in 2010 among a diverse range of organizations, but with little governmental support, computing had by 2013 been translated into new programmes of study for schools that were published on the site. In our analysis, then, we are hoping to understand the policy process around the computing curriculum both as the product of a distributed cross-sector ‘policy network’ and an accelerated ‘fast policy’ event. Here we’re drawing on Jamie Peck and Nik Theodore’s conceptualization of both the spatial distribution and temporal speed-up of policymaking in Fast Policy:

The modern policymaking process may still be focused on centers of political authority, but … sources, channels, and sites of policy advice encompass sprawling networks of human and nonhuman actors/actants, including consultants, web sites, practitioner communities, norm-­setting models, conferences, guru per­formances, evaluation scientists, think tanks, blogs, global policy institutes, and best-­practice peddlers…

They further articulate how fast policy has been marked by ‘shortening of policy development cycles, fast-tracking decision-making and rapid programme roll-out,’ all features that can be seen in the development and diffusion of computing curriculum policy. Not only has the timescale of its development, implementation and enactment been highly compressed, but has also involved advice and influence from across different sectors and positions.

Network nodes
The network of organizations that has combined to influence and enact the computing curriculum consists of a diverse range of public, private and third sector actors. Some of the first advocacy for computing in the curriculum came from very different perspectives. The campaigning organization Computing at School, for example, produced a white paper back in 2010. The innovation charity Nesta produced a report in 2011 about the needs of the videogames and visual effects industry that emphasized computing in school as a solution to a skills gap. The Royal Society followed in 2012 with a report intended to protect academic Computer Science.

2012 was a key year. The Secretary of State for Education at that time, Michael Gove, gave a key speech that highlighted government ambitions to replace ICT with computing. The Department for Education then formed a working group to design draft programmes of study for the new subject. The working group was led by the British Computing Society, the Royal Society of Engineering, and Computing at School, with membership that encompassed interests from industry, education and academia.

At around the same time, organizations to support children to learn how to programme computer code started emerging—such as Code Club, Raspberry Pi, and the Festival of Code event run by Young Rewired State. In the years since, a large number of coding initiatives have sprung up in support of the curriculum, including, most notably, the BBC’s flagship Make it Digital campaign and its distribution of a million ‘Micro-Bit’ programmable computers to children across the UK.

Beyond the UK, a more distributed network exists. These include the US Hour of Code initiative (a UK version now exists too) and the Computer Science for All campaign supported by President Barack Obama. Commercial support from global technology companies such as Google, Microsoft and Oracle has also helped solidify computing in schools. Oracle, for example, has spent hundreds of millions of US dollars supporting Computer Science for All, and in 2016 announced over a billion dollars of funding for computing education in European Union member states.

Policy actor positions
Within the cross-sector, interorganizational network that supports computing curriculum policy, key individuals have been able to take up different positions. From our interviews, we have begun to build up a rough typology of these positions:

  • Guru figureheads—influential individuals, often with industry background in major global tech companies, who use their position to make persuasive public statements and galvanize political and public support
  • Relationship brokers—actors who are able to build connections between seemingly diverse organizations, sectors, discourses and individual actors; who capture good ideas and propel them forwards through building and coordinating collaborations between others
  • Lobbyists—specific campaigners who advocate the interests of the groups they represent through the production of key campaigning messages, fixing meetings, organizing events, and generating public visibility
  • Practical experts—mostly former or present educators committed to the educational benefits of computing, they take a pragmatic view of the opportunities available to drive forward their agenda through work with other educators
  • Troublemakers—network insiders who feel their own interests are not being heard or acted upon, and publicly resist and critique the dominant network activities—sometimes risking being marginalized from key events and actions
  • Geek insiders—activist programmers and technology experts, usually affiliated to voluntary groups, who are seen by government officials  as trusted sources of technical know-how and inside-knowledge about technology development and its implications for education
  • Venture entrepreneurs—influential and wealthy venture capital actors from the technology and innovation sector, some enjoy a revolving-door relationship with government departments and senior politicians, and represent major global VC firms

Other positions in the network include those for volunteer programmers who teach young people how to code outside of school, and computing teachers who enact the computing curriculum itself through their pedagogies.

Many of these actors have collaborated on working groups, campaign alliances, lobbying associations, cross-sector collaborations, and the shared production of future visions and practical strategies.

Policy materiality
A policy network never merely consists of people and organizations, but a vast material tapestry of objects, technical hardware, software and texts. The computing curriculum network can operate in a distributed and accelerated way because it encompasses a sprawling network of nonhuman stuff. Websites for all the organizations involved in the network function as key sources of information, advocacy and advice. Most of these organizations are also accomplished users of social media, with Twitter accounts and Facebook pages used to attract followers and diffuse ideas, events and key messages.

Much of the original support for computing in schools became possible because of a growing mass of reports, white papers, manifestos, working papers and draft curriculum proposals. Some of the early documents produced by Computing at School and Nesta, for example, only caught public attention months or years after initial publication, as these organizations acted opportunistically to insert their expertise into emerging political openings. Newspaper and magazine coverage in both educational and mainstream media has helped propel these ideas into public visibility.

In terms of the practical enactment of computing curriculum policy, this has also been supported in very material ways, such as through the provision of printed curriculum guidance, the supply of online teacher training materials, and the easy availability of free coding software for use in schools. Physical computing devices such as the Raspberry Pi and the Micro-Bit instantiate the computing curriculum in hardware.

Policy speak
What the network says is as important as how it works. According to our interviewees, the computing curriculum has been relatively successful because it encompasses a range of quite diverse interests and agendas. The interests of disciplinary computer science can be accommodated alongside the more practical agenda of coding and programming usually associated with the field of software engineering. Some advocates of computing talk more of computational thinking and the capacity of young people to solve real-world problems by thinking like a computer, while others talk of the urgent need to develop digital citizenship and critical digital literacy to cope in a world of massive social and technical complexity.

Indeed, some of our interviewees talked of strategic ambiguity—evident even at specific high level meetings—where computer science, programming and notions of digital literacy were treated as one and the same thing. This is despite others’ protestations that over-emphasizing computer science risks turning computing into a high stakes scientific subject for academic high achievers, or that prioritizing coding risks treating computing as a talent pipeline for the commercial software development industry.

A fast policy infrastructure
There remains much analysis to be done of the specific interviews we have conducted, and of the webs of materials and technologies that have proliferated since the computing curriculum fully came into force in English schools. We also need to make better sense of the implications for computing of the wider current context of education policymaking. Notably, for example, Computer Science is now available as a GCSE qualification in the English Baccalaureate, making it a high stakes exam subject by which school performance might be measured. At the same time, however, mass academization means secondary schools are under no obligation to even teach computing at all. Primary schools, we are told, have probably done more with computing than secondary schools, which raises real concern about transition and progress. And funding and teacher shortages remain significant problems which, despite the extensive network activity roughed-out above, shows no sign of being resolved.

However, what we think we can see emerging is a kind of ad hoc architecture of relationships, practices and materials, or a fast policy infrastructure, which has orchestrated the ways in which the computing curriculum has been diffused and is continuing to influence the ways in which it is being enacted, extended to new sites, and expanded to encompass diverse interests and agendas. This infrastructure consists of diverse organizations from the public, private and third sectors; of individual actors and mutating relationships; of technologies, texts and web materials; and of discourses, good ideas and strategically-deployed ambiguities. As an unfolding policy event, the computing curriculum is typical of fast policy and policy network enactment among networks of cross-sector human and nonhuman networks of people and materials, and their translation into delicate but mutable affiliations and strategically combined interests that have been mobilized to achieve varied aims and goals.

Image credit: Les Pounder
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