Software

IITPSA questions DBE decision on programming language teaching


Johannesburg, 10 Oct 2013
Read time 6min 00sec

Out of the blue and seemingly with little or no consultation, the Department of Basic Education (DBE) released Circular S9 on 9 September. In essence, the DBE has decided that, as from 2016, Delphi will be the only language to be assessed in the Grade 12 national examination. Provinces are now advising schools of this decision. This, of course, is leading to considerable unhappiness, especially in those provinces and schools affected by the decision.

Computer-based subjects in Grades 10 to 12 have been around since 1978, when the Transvaal Education Department introduced Computer Studies into some schools. The Cape Education Department introduced the subject into four schools in 1979.

As personal computers had not yet become readily available, the programming languages studied in the Computer Studies course were FORTRAN and COBOL. When PCs started entering the school market, a move was made to teaching BASIC with LOGO as an introductory programming language. Prior to the introduction of the current programming languages, Pascal was the language being taught in schools - and Pascal was introduced around 1985.

Ever since the Western Cape Education Department decided to introduce Java as the programming language in information technology (IT) in Grades 10 to 12 in 2000, there has been an ongoing debate as to whether the choice was correct. At the time, the open source community recommended using Python.

As things stand at present, the Western Cape, the Northern Cape, Mpumalanga and KZN teach Java, while all the remaining provinces teach Delphi.

The language debate has been whether to standardise on one of the existing languages (ie Delphi or Java); to allow both languages to continue; or whether the time is not right to switch to a more modern language, such as Python. There are pros and cons with all languages, especially when they are taught as a first language at school level.

Over the past three years, the provinces have expended valuable time and money on training teachers to teach the new "CAPS" curriculum (CAPS = Curriculum and Assessment Policy Statement). Those provinces teaching Java have moved to teaching Netbeans, which conforms 100% with the "CAPS" curriculum. The last training courses for teachers to equip them to teach the "CAPS" Grade 12 material were held in the last June/July holidays. Other recent initiatives, such as the online course being presented by Oracle, are preparing teachers to teach Java. This initiative also provides valuable teaching and learning resources.

The DBE has decided:

* In IT, only Delphi will be used in all the national examinations administered by the DBE. Java has, therefore, been dropped. It should also be noted that the IEB will, in all likelihood, continue to offer both Java and Delphi.

* In Computer Applications Technology (CAT), only MS Office 2010 and MS Office 2013 will be permitted. The option of schools using open source software, such as LibreOffice, has been taken away from them with immediate effect.

These two decisions have massive implications, not only for the subjects concerned, but also for the IT industry and for South Africa. This decision is considered by many to be a giant step backwards rather than being a bold step into the future for IT education in our schools. Some of the implications include the following:

* Teachers currently in training might have to change the programming language they are being taught mid-stream.

* Teachers in those schools where Java is being taught will need to be retrained during 2014 so that they are ready to teach Delphi in Grade 11 in 2015. Some may resist, as they know they will be retiring in the next year or so. Who will provide this training?

* Many schools have had problems with sustaining IT as a subject. This from a cost perspective and also from the difficulty they have had in finding a suitably qualified teacher. They may decide that enough is enough and decide to start phasing the subject out from next year. In other words, this year's Grade 10 class could be their last class. This could severely impact on the subject in the rural areas, which will be hard pressed to find suitably qualified teachers.

* Most tertiary institutions are teaching C++, Java, Python or other similar languages. Can you see universities switching to teaching Delphi? So where will the trained teachers required in future years come from?

* The SA Computer Olympiad finalists have, in the main, either been self-taught or have come from schools where Java has been taught. This will change and may start to impact on SA's standing in the International Olympiad in Informatics (IOI) and elsewhere. Over the past number of years, only Pascal and C++ have been used in the IOI, but there is a strong possibility that Java will be used as from 2014.

* In South Africa, we are taking a step backwards into the past as far as the teaching of IT in schools is concerned. In the rest of the world, the move is to Java and now possibly Python. Delphi is hardly taught in any school system elsewhere in the world.

* The Delphi bias is towards teaching "commercial computing", ie there is always a database of some form behind what is being taught. We are not training learners about "scientific computing", which this country desperately needs. Where does the STEM focus slot into this decision?

* The dropping of the provision for open source software seems to be contrary to the government's declaration that state departments use open source unless they can show reason why open source products will not work. Many school systems around the world are seeing the benefits of using open source. Learners are using Android and iOS on their handheld devices - why shouldn't they be exposed to using other operating systems, such as Ubuntu?

* Many schools currently teaching CAT will not have the funding to move from MS Office 2003, MS Office 2007 or LibreOffice to the versions prescribed in the circular, and so could drop the subject. This could mean the numbers of learners taking CAT will start to decrease - and SA desperately needs IT-literate citizens.

IITPSA urges the DBE to reconsider the decision, which we believe was taken because they were not fully aware of all the implications, and were essentially uninformed or, at worst, misinformed.

IITPSA

IITPSA - The Institute of Information Technology Professionals South Africa, formerly the Computer Society of South Africa (CSSA) - has represented the interests of practitioners in the information technology field for more than 56 years. It has 4 000 members, more than half of whom are black. IITPSA is a member of the International Federation for Information Processing (IFIP), is represented at many official forums relevant to the ICT sector, and has a seat on the Board of the MICT SETA.

Editorial contacts
IITPSA Tony Parry (011) 315 1319
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