Computer education in the era of the Greek digital school

Article of the member of Hellenic Informatics Union Mr Socrated Dimitriadis presenting the current status of Computer Science education in Greek schools.

by Socrates Dimitriadis

Published in ACM's CSTA Voice, volume 7, issue 3 (short version), and in newspaper Patrides (full version)

The information revolution and the widespread use of electronic devices made at least one thing clear: schools must teach something about computers. But what is it? Should it be “computer science” or just “computer literacy”? Recent studies show that both of them are equally important. Computer literacy sets the foundation for the development of basic computer skills, while computer science unfolds the theory behind the tools and provides a true understanding of the information technology that surrounds us. In order for the student to make a smooth transition from mere skills to real knowledge, the school must provide an integrated and coherent program that spans primary and secondary education.

Greece has never had any serious plan on this issue. Neither for computer science nor for computer literacy. In 2011, more than two decades after the onset of the information revolution, elementary schools (grades 1-6) do not yet provide any type of computer education in their curriculum. As for middle school (grades 7-9), the subject of computer science is taught for only one hour per week, in the same fashion as it was first introduced in the curriculum in 1993. In high school (grades 10-12), computer science is just an elective course, and it is only in the technological track of the 12th grade that the course is mandatory for students that plan to apply for admission to technological departments of the higher education. On top of that, in an effort to reduce the high unemployment rates of high school teachers, the Greek governments in the 90's undermined the computer education by letting teachers of non-CS disciplines, even of humanities, to become permanent teachers of computer science after attending a short seminar on basic computer skills. It's obvious from this short overview that the educational system of Greece doesn't provide for the so much needed computer literacy, let alone for a rigorous education in computer science.

The Greek government, following the steps of all its predecessors, announced yet another reform in the educational system of Greece. And to show the emphasis it puts on computer education it coined the term "The new digital school". Definitely an oxymoron, because in the new curriculum of the "digital" high school there is no room for computer science. The course is either removed or becomes an elective. As for middle school, the government hasn't revealed any plan, and it's still under debate whether the single hour of computer education per week should remain. There is no plan for primary education either. Just a promise that the new curriculum of the elementary school is going to introduce a horizontal use of computer applications in several subjects. The Ministry of Education argues that this horizontal adoption of computer tools will provide all the computer literacy that a student needs, and therefore, no course of computer science will be necessary in secondary education any more. As the Minister of Education, Mrs Anna Diamantopoulou, put it in an interview she gave at Silicon Valley, "by the time kids get to middle school they already know how to use computers and the Internet".

Greece is ranked in the last place of the EU countries in all issues related to science and innovation. How can we reverse this situation if the only goal of the new school is the basic computer skills? Today's kids need a lot more than computer literacy in order to compete in the evolving technological world. In the transition we make from an information society to a knowledge society, education in computer science is not just crucial but a prerequisite for survival. Algorithmic thinking, problem solving ability, and digital security awareness, are only a few of the modern skills that current generation students must acquire. And this is not a knowledge that one can simply get in elementary school. The course of computer science is an absolute necessity for middle school and high school curricula in order to complement the computer literacy and complete the computer education of the students. But the Greek government disagrees. Unfortunately, some education policy makers can't distinguish between computer literacy and computer science. No wonder why Greece cannot innovate. Our only novelty is to envision a “digital” school without a coherent plan for a complete computer education.

The Greek government makes a lot of effort to justify the rationale of the reform. Teachers, however, cannot help connecting the removal of computer science with the austerity measures that the country is going through. It is not only the supposedly new perspective on pedagogy that drives the reforms, but the immediate need for spending cuts as well. Greece may not be able to fire its public school teachers, since they hold permanent positions, but computer science teachers have the professional diversity and the necessary credentials to be transferred to many positions that go beyond education. From technical support in schools, to the numerous understaffed IT departments of the public administration. Given the financial stringency, Greece has limited ability in hiring new personnel, so the removal of computer science from high schools can yield a double benefit for the government. On one hand it will reduce the number of teachers, and on the other hand it will increase the IT personnel that the public sector is in desperate need. The story of undermining the computer education is repeated once again.

The announcement of the reform hasn't caused a great turmoil yet because the full details of the plan are still undisclosed. The government, in an effort to minimize the reactions, is periodically leaking parts of the plan to the press and makes promises that will honor the results of the public consultation. In the past, educational reforms have always caused a lot of trouble to the Greek governments, but this time the circumstances are different. Over the past year, the Greek society, that is continuously bombarded with new reforms and austerity measures, has started to compromise with the idea that certain changes would have to pass, and unfortunately, this attitude is not limited to the rightful changes only. The Hellenic Informatics Union is trying hard to raise public awareness on the importance of computer education, as well as the distinction between computer literacy and computer science. The Greek society starts to be responsive but the Greek government is not listening. With the lack of innovation threatening our economy, if Greece doesn't put an immediate emphasis on computer education the financial deficit will soon be minimal compared to the educational deficit we're building.