One does not simply get a CS degree

Imagine an educational theory so powerful that it would allow just about anyone with no knowledge whatsoever to completely trash your degree, your experience, your expertise and everything you stand for in one swift sentence.

My brother works in a coffee shop, and the other day he called me up and asked me to bring something in to work he’d forgotten. I went in with it, and as I was waiting for him to finish up with some customers I got chatting to an old-ish lady who was waiting to use the loo. She asked what I did, I told her I taught ICT and Computing, and she said

…oh, it must be very hard to keep up with the kids these days. They’re all so good on the computer you must have to keep learning new things just to get ahead…”

Boom! There it was. 11 years of learning, coding, working, teaching – completely devalued in one sentence by an old lady in a coffee shop.

I spoke about this incident at the CAS roundup (#4) and a collective groan went round of two simple words: Digital Natives. It appears the term Digital Natives was coined by Marc Prensky in 2001 in his paper “Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants”. Upon reading his paper, I noticed that I actually do not have a problem with the theory in itself, because in essence what he is proposing is that current students learn in a different way to (some) current teachers, and therefore teachers must realise this and adapt their teaching. He also advocates game based learning as a good methodology, of which I am certainly a fan. Reader, I forgave him.

However, the digital natives theory is still the bane of my life because so many people hear it and then interpret it as something completely different, whilst still thinking they are justified in their views by “science”. Yes, you can almost feel me doing the sarcastic air quotes. I like these people just about as much as I like people who you see infrequently and who start every conversation with “so, on holiday again then?”.

The common interpretation is this:

Digital natives grew up with technology…so there is nothing you can teach them


*rolls up sleeves*

Objection #1: Knowing something != Knowing all the things

I grew up with a cat, so by that logic I don’t have to take Biology, right? I also grew up with cars, but I still had to do a driving test (*cough* 3 times) and I have no idea how to change a wheel let alone fiddle around in the engine. I also write, read and speak in English every day, so by this logic there’s obviously no need to study literature or to write any essays? Simply having experience of something does not make you an expert, and even in the old and rather dodgy ICT framework there was still considerable emphasis on using software appropriately and skilfully rather than just simply using it.

Objection #2: Computing is not using a computer

This is the one that really cuts deep, because it implies that I spent considerable amounts of money and three years of my life pursuing a degree which this person clearly perceives to be somewhat akin to Jen from the IT Crowd’s “experience” on her CV:

” I did say that on my CV, yes. I have a lot of experience with the whole computer thing you know, emails, sending emails, receiving emails, deleting emails…the web. Using a mouse, mices, using mice. Clicking, double clicking. The computer screen, of course. The keyboard. The… bit that goes on the floor down there.”

OH PLEASE! This makes me want to come over there and beat you with my linear algebra book. If I had a degree in Engineering, no one would dare to say that Design Tech students were probably building better bridges in their lessons out of toilet rolls and PVA glue! Seriously (and I know I’m preaching to the converted so I won’t harp on), my degree in Computer Science is MORE than enough to keep me ahead of even the best students in my class, thank you. That’s not to say that I know everything there is to know and I don’t need to work to keep up to date – very far from it – but at least if I don’t know it I have the skill to be able to figure it out rather than having to get someone else to Google it for me.

(Sorry, that was a bit of a rant! :D)

Objection #3: Students are only knowledgeable when they choose to try

If you don’t believe me, you have never been to an ICT lesson. You have never asked a “digital native” to save a piece of work, and then the next lesson been greeted by wails of “Where’s my work miss? The computer hasn’t saved it!”. You have never wished you were at the dentist instead rather than trying to drum up the enthusiasm to teach a pack of “digital natives” about the joys of Excel (aren’t vlookups AWESOME?!!!11). You have never done your world’s-best-practically-Oscar-winning starter, only to have a hand thrust in the air saying “I don’t understand” within 0.5 seconds of the last word you uttered.

Pupils ‘get’ what they want to get, the things they are interested in – because they put in the effort to do so. The last time I checked, ‘Facebook messenger’ and ‘stick cricket proficiency’ were not on my scheme of work.  A large part of teaching ICT and Computing is like being a big geeky cheerleader, encouraging kids on to learn things they haven’t realised are useful yet. It’s not that these things are hard, they just require perseverance – which is not something our digital natives are in high supply of. Ensuring they learn what I know will be useful for them tomorrow, today, is why I am here.

(Images from and )


4 thoughts on “One does not simply get a CS degree

  1. Richard Terry (@radiac) says:

    I wouldn’t mind getting devalued so much if they would just stop following it up with a request to fix their damned computer. “I want you to make me a website, but I don’t want to pay for it. It won’t take you long.” Nnnng.

    I am thinking about approaching schools and universities to offer a class to their computer science students, where I teach them the greatest skill I have developed: being able to pull off a convincing “Oh! That’s odd. I have no idea!”

  2. Be says:

    I had a similar experience teaching computer literacy to “digital natives” at a tier one public institution. Yes, they can use Facebook with aplomb….no, they don’t understand, or care to understand, how to manually input a function into Excel despite my incessant insistence that it is useful even if they are studying sociology.

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