Informatics in School: Europe is moving in the right direction

By Enrico Nardelli – University of Rome ‘Tor Vergata’ & President of Informatics Europe

On April 6, in Brussels, together with colleagues from the European coalition Informatics for All, we presented the Informatics Reference Framework for School to the Directorate-General for Education, Youth, Sport and Culture of the European Commission.

We are particularly proud to have been invited to this event, which is the first of the stakeholder consultation meetings that the Commission has planned to prepare the proposal for a Council Recommendation on improving the provision of digital skills in education and training, which is expected to be published by the end of 2022.

Informatics Europe (the European association of university departments and industrial research laboratories working in the field of computer science and computer engineering I am the president of) in collaboration with the ACM Europe Council (the European committee of the Association for Computing Machinery – the world’s largest international association of academics and computer science professionals), started working since 2012 on the topic of the importance of teaching informatics in schools, in order to enable Europe to be a leader in the global digital society.

Then, in 2018, we founded the Informatics for All coalition, together with the Council for European Professional Informatics Societies (CEPIS), and published a strategy paper identifying the goal of providing all citizens with a basic scientific education in informatics, equivalent to what they receive in mathematics and other sciences. Introducing education in Informatics since the earliest years of school is a key step in this strategy, which has been taken up by the European Commission in its Digital Education Action Plan 2021-27. The plan identifies “placing an emphasis on high quality inclusive informatics education at all levels of education” (Action No. 10) among the most important actions to be implemented. Paraphrasing a slogan that is the basis of modern democracies with a keyword highly used in these months, we could say “no digital transformation without informatics education“.

The Technical Committee on Education of the International Federation on Information Processing (IFIP) also joined the coalition in 2020. Together with them, under the guidance of Michael Caspersen, a Danish colleague active in this field since many years, we have worked on the definition of the Reference Framework. On the one hand, education is an issue that at the level of the European Union remains the responsibility of the individual member states; on the other hand, there is a great variety of languages, cultures and school systems in the European continent. Therefore, instead of trying to devise a curriculum for the teaching of informatics is valid for all European schools (an almost impossible mission), we set ourselves the goal to define a high level reference framework that provides a shared vision of the discipline, while allowing each country to implement its own curriculum in a manner compatible with its history and tradition. “Unity in diversity” has been our guiding motto.

We are aware that the process of building a political consensus in Europe is delicate and difficult, rightly so, I would say, also considering the extreme heterogeneity of the peoples who inhabit it. Therefore, defining a minimal set of high-level requirements for all European countries seemed to us to be the right goal to allow each State to define its own specific approach, while coordinating the different paths towards the common goal of being able to better compete in the global market of the digital society through an effective and respectful collaboration and integration.

To this end, the framework is intentionally concise and flexible. It lists only 5 competency goals that all students should achieve at the end of their compulsory schooling, also paying attention to the social aspects of digital technologies, a topic whose relevance is continuously growing. It is conceived as a “high-level map” of informatics that identifies a list of 11 core topics, each once characterized by a brief description and designed so as to be robust to the inevitable evolution of the discipline. Subsequently, for many of these core topic, some areas that are particularly promising in the contemporary context have been identified (an example for all: artificial intelligence for the core topic “computing systems”). These can therefore be used in the specific national curriculum so as to make it attractive to students.

Particular emphasis has been put to stimulate curriculum designers towards the theme of inclusion, since more and more digital systems are the cause of social discrimination, recommending that a specific attention is given to the gender imbalance afflicting the digital workforce. The Framework was submitted to the attention of the various national informatics communities, and the final version – published in February 2022 and for which we plan to produce translations in national languages – took into account comments received from 14 countries.

In the same meeting, the Commission outlined the preliminary results of a survey on the current situation of informatics education in schools in all Member States, to be published by September 2022. The document definitively establishes that the name of the subject to be taught in schools is “informatics” (hence not “digital skills” or “computational thinking” or other expressions widely used in recent years that have, however, made the situation a bit confusing), since its linguistic root is the most common to indicate this discipline in Europe. Among the most important aspects, the theme of the preparation of teachers for teaching informatics has clearly emerged: strong investments will be necessary (as it is happening, for example, in the United Kingdom) since it is a discipline on which most of them have not received any education, neither in their professional career nor at school time.

To conclude, the journey has begun and there is still a long way to go. Europe has shown the way, let’s not waste time. Our future is at stake.

By Enrico Nardelli – University of Rome ‘Tor Vergata’ & President of Informatics Europe

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