Content overload?

  • Jeremy Scott

    Whilst the new NQ courses represent an improvement on their predecessors, I’ve been concerned about both the volume of content as well as the nature of some of it – most notably the environmental, legal and ethical aspects.

    It’s something that’s also been picked up by our pupils. S5 frequently say to me that N5 CS was the most content-heavy subject they studied, resulting in stressed pupils who are reluctant to continue with the subject. They also pass that view down to year groups below, reducing uptake.

    I’ve therefore gone through the Course Assessment Specifications (CAS) for a number of subjects to see if environmental, legal and ethical considerations feature heavily (if at all). If other subjects were to get the same treatment as CS, one might expect the following to be taught:

    • Biology: bioethics, laws relating to dissection & vivisection, GM crops, disease control, medical consent, etc.
    • Physics: social impact of microelectronics, disposal of waste electronics, disposal of nuclear waste, development of nuclear weapons, etc.
    • Chemistry: environmental considerations, disposal of chemicals, industrial chemistry laws, drug testing, etc.
    • English: copyright and intellectual property, libel, etc.
    • Music: copyright and intellectual property, etc.

    None of these subjects features anything significant about these issues. Only in the Higher CAS of some of these subjects is there a passing mention of environmental issues. CS appears to be alone amongst mainstream subjects in including significant detailed content about such “broader” issues.

    When I ran the CS CAS past my colleagues in these subjects, they were incredulous, with the most common question about these issues being “What’s that got to do with Computing Science?” I must confess, it’s a hard one to answer.

    I have genuine concern for the environment and I find social and ethical considerations around the subject fascinating and it forms part of my broader reading. However, these issues sit outside Computing Science and, I would argue, if they have a place at all, it is in broader ICT – something that is the responsibility of all subjects. Alternatively, it could be argued that individual aspects sit more comfortably in subjects like Citizenship, Administration, P&R, Geography and Business Education.

    Looking at other subjects, it’s clear that the content in the CS CAS is much broader than elsewhere, making it practically undeliverable in the time we have.

    I would therefore call upon SQA, which is revising the courses as we speak, to review the CS CAS at all levels to radically reduce the amount of content, with the first port of call being the wholesale dropping of legal and environmental issues.

    What do colleagues think? Could the same argument be made for aspects of the massive Technological Requirements section (formerly known as Computer Systems) – or is that sacrosanct? *


    * It would be good if we could keep any discussion high level rather than focussing on minutiae such as whether “new” content about redundant technology like switches and FireWire should have been introduced (on which I know we all have a view…)


    As every Jeremy a well thought through and clear post from you raising some very good points. I would agree with you with the amount of content. This was discussed years ago since CS and IS were compressed into one course and there seemed to be a lot of content brought from both, thus 2 courses did not become 1 but 1.3 or 1.5.

    Personally I don’t find N4/5 too bad as we do it over 2 years but Higher is real dash and a lot of things are not covered with the detail that I would like because I do not have the time to really dig into them. If I was doing N4/5 over 1 year I would be in the same situation as the Higher, too much to cover in the time.

    My only concern is that there have been so many changes to the course do I want more changes now? Well no but I guess if it was simply pulling things out rather than adding or changing anything then that would be fine but we need to be careful what we wish for in this regard.

    Just my 2 cents worth.


    Lindsey Grieve

    I agree with you both, far too much content.  If they are changing from a 40/60 to a 30/70 split next year will this have a negative impact and even more content being added.

    I can’t believe we are still re-writing courses all these years after a new implementation – what a joke.  Roll on retirement.  Lucky those who got out before cfe took off.

    I’m really liking the new courses compared to the old ones but please just leave us alone to bed down the courses – remove content by all accounts but no more additions please.


    Jeremy Scott

    Indeed. My suggestion is the wholesale removal of legal and environmental issues from all of the courses.

    I certainly wouldn’t advocate adding anything!



    Enrico Vanni

    I agree that there are fundamental issues with the content of the current Computing Science National, and I think that before we embark on a process to resolve the problem it would help to identify the reasons why we have ended up in this situation so we don’t repeat the same mistakes.


    Firstly, there is the legacy of the ‘three-foot-tall-pile-of-paper’ that was the first Higher Computing course.  I was just finishing my CS with Law Degree at Strathclyde Uni. when that course first saw the light of day and I know that many of my lecturers at SU were involved in much of the content.  I can also see how the Information System content that carried into National Computing Science is still a legacy of the Databases courses I studied at SU in the late 1980’s.  This was never a good basis to start from and we’ve been carrying a lot of that baggage pretty much ever since.


    Then there is the perception that Computing has to be ‘new’ and ‘trendy’ and always on the bubble, which has of course led to some howlers of what turned out to be dead-end technology being ‘hard-wired’ into our courses (Zip-drives and holographic storage, anyone?!)  This is also why we have ended up with transient social, ecological, and political issues being shoe-horned in, very often to a perfunctory and often inaccurate level (the trivialisation of the consequences of legislation mentioned the courses being a particular bug-bear of mine).


    I actually think that the amount of content in the N5 course is about right if, as dbrowning suggests, the course us covered over 2 years.  I think the problem though (a problem I have iterated several times in various threads in here) is that the course is now very ‘bitty’ in places as a result of being a Frankenstien’s monster attempt to join pieces of units from two legacy subjects.   Very often content gets retained or rejected because of the personal persuasions of the people being asked the questions  (ie. the things that go are the bits they found hard to teach, and the bits that stay or get ‘re-introduced’ are their own pet topics).  This results in a course that is disjointed because very often in legacy courses one piece of content is related to another, so when one of them is done away with the other is ‘orphaned’ and just becomes a fact to learn or an incomplete part of the picture.  This is very apparent in the latest Higher Computing Science where snippets of content from the old optional units such as compression algorithms sit on their own now with little or no context.


    The solution is to remove certain content that sits on its own (I agree that an obvious area to cull is the one you have identified Jeremy) and give what is left more breathing space so that it can be studied in more detail and the ‘missing parts of the picture’ filled in.  With regards to the Technical Requirements content of Computing Science I am of the opinion that it is as fundamental to the course as programming is (and that repeated calls by some to do away with it have more to do with the ‘personal persuasions’ issue I mentioned above), but the content should perhaps be made to relate more to data types and data representations in programs and info systems – how many people for example are actually aware that the term ‘single’ for a real number variable in Visual Basic and other languages relates directly to the attribution of bits for a floating-point number?  It irks me greatly that the SQA are blissfully unaware of it and reject the answer in exams because ‘it isn’t in the CAS’.

    Jeremy Scott

    An interesting and thoughtful post, Enrico.

    I agree that aspects of the Technical Requirements section such as those you identified are fundamental to the course; however, there are arguably some that aren’t. In reality, we treat Technical Requirements almost as a discrete unit, whilst relating it to SDD & ISDD where possible.

    In terms of the time allocation to the N5 course, most schools have only a year in which to cover it – which isn’t really doable. We also do the N5 over two years, which is doable, but my concerns lie not just with the volume of the content but my belief that some of it just doesn’t belong in a CS course.

    I also agree with dbrowning that doing the new Higher in a year is a real dash; we could give our pupils a much better experience if the legal and ethical aspects were dropped, for example.

    Mrs Janet McDonald

    We too are fortunate in teaching Nat5 over 2 years, but I agree that I would find it nigh on impossible to cover the content in 1. Like Jeremy, I would also agree that the content is putting potential candidates off. We had a number of pupils who did well at Nat5 last year (As and A1s) who came back and told us that they were not taking Higher because, although they had enjoyed the Nat5 course and done well, they felt that they had had to work a lot harder to get their A in Computing Science than in any of their other subjects.

    In terms of content that I would remove, I wouldn’t be too sorry to see the loss of the content Jeremy mentions as I agree that its relevance is tenuous. My only comment on this would be that this topic does generally provide ‘easy marks’ for candidates in the exams… and there are precious few of those these days!

    Personally, my real concern is the volume of content in Higher, and the level of detail expected across such a large content. Given my own choice, I would remove those topics which are a tiny part of the course and would be better studied properly elsewhere or left out altogether. I’m thinking about things like object-oriented programming and declarative programming at Higher. In terms of the OOP for most of us it is probably a single lesson (or little more) and doesn’t give pupils enough knowledge or experience to do anything with – other than to generate a question that they don’t like and answer badly in the exam paper. In few years’ time it won’t even do that usefully because there is SO little they need to know about OOP that all possible questions will have been exhausted and the pupils will simply learn the answers to the ones that have been asked. The same goes for declarative languages (by which the SQA seem to mean only ProLog), but that doesn’t even lead on to AH. Leave OOP for AH and ditch the ProLog! I would also remove the rather woolly section on “Contemporary Technologies” which feels like a rather desperate attempt to future-proof a course in a subject where it is almost impossible to do that (there’s that holographic storage and fire-wire again).

    Having said all that, I would be REALLY concerned about the prospect of provoking even more changes to our CfE courses. I agree it would be great if we could just pull some stuff out and leave the rest alone, but history tells us that when the SQA offers “clarifications” what we end up with is “changes” and I’m pretty sure that if SQA were given the green light to “just remove” some course content, they wouldn’t be able to resist the opportunity to tinker. I am already awaiting the “clarifications” to Nat5 that will relate to the removal of unit assessments with some trepidation.


    Enrico Vanni

    Hi Janet!


    Interesting that you identify OOP and Declarative Languages as obvious content to cull.  The former is of course a hangover from the core content of old Higher Computing which was incorporated in the course as an attempt to hitch it to a then cutting-edge but long since rolled past bandwagon, and the presence of the latter pays lip-service to those who favoured the AI optional topic of the old Higher!  Frankenstein’s monster indeed and I agree entirely with your reasoning that the course would lose nothing of real value by their removal in their present form, not because they are not worthy topics but because they are covered to such a trivial level as to make them pointless, but to cover them to a meaningful depth deserves a course or a unit entirely of their own (as was previously the case!)


    Going back to the Technical Requirements issue for a minute, the treating of it as a separate unit is a throwback to when it was a separate unit at Standard Grade, Intermediate 2 and Higher levels!  I am of the opinion that this content has suffered the most as a result of the need to make Computing Science courses fit the ‘two units plus AV/coursework’ model that was mandated by the CfE steering committee at the SQA, with the content being shoehorned into units in a ‘best fit’ fashion that wasn’t really a best fit at all – splitting low-level machine concepts and discussions of RAM, processor specifications and storage across two units was inexplicably idiotic IMO.


    I too am wary of more wholesale change, but I can’t get away from the feeling that as a result of political decisions based on dogma and expediency, what we currently have is fundamentally broken (a criticism that can be levelled at CfE courses in general, with Computing Science being a particularly wounded casualty because they changed too many things about it at the same time).

    Jeremy Scott

    I did, of course, mean redundant technology like hubs and FireWire! 🙂

    Moira Feldman

    Totally agree with most of what I have read, following this thread.  Unfortunately, in my school we have to cover Nat 5 in one year. The same with Higher.

    I feel that the real problem lies in the fact that condensing two subjects (Computing and Info Systems) is the root of the problem – it is just not doable in one year, especially so when you get to higher and for example, you do really have to teach normalisation before a pupil can realistically be able to work out relationships ie 1:1 etc and draw an entity relationship diagram.  SQA should be never have been permitted to condense two subjects into one and if this is to remain the case, then a lot of the content must be rethought and/or removed.  Whatever the SQA claim, we know as teachers, that there is not a level playing field when Computing Science is compared with other subjects.  How do we get a greater uptake of stem subjects when pupils do ask around and choose subjects that regularly have a higher pass rate than ours?

    Marc McWhirter

    Totally agree and find it very frustrating. The depth in which I have the time to teach some areas, for example web design leaves my students with a very fluffy understanding of HTML, CSS, etc. The mandatory content really needs looked at. I am worried that when the SQA ‘update’ the courses and remove the Units that we might get further additional content!

    Darren Brown

    The general info on N5 changes for next session say “no content change just exemplification” – shame as they could do with removing quite a bit. Although last May was “exemplification” and ended up being lots of changes, again just single terms and not much explanation.

    Confirmation has just gone up on SQA website of assessment changes for N5 next year

    50 mark (31%) course assignment EXTERNALLY marked and extended paper (new length not stated) 110 marks (69%) exam.

    Gareth Rae

    <span style=”line-height: 115%; font-family: ‘Calibri’,’sans-serif’; font-size: 11pt; mso-ascii-theme-font: minor-latin; mso-fareast-font-family: Calibri; mso-fareast-theme-font: minor-latin; mso-hansi-theme-font: minor-latin; mso-bidi-font-family: ‘Times New Roman’; mso-bidi-theme-font: minor-bidi; mso-ansi-language: EN-GB; mso-fareast-language: EN-US; mso-bidi-language: AR-SA;”><span style=”color: #000000;”>On a point Moira made in her previous post, I have attached a copy below a file I created in August while carrying out results analysis in preparation for a meeting.  I extracted the % pass rates A to C for all the main Higher courses we deliver in school from 2001 to 2016 and worked out the average pass mark for the past 2, 5 and 16 years. It is sorted on the average over the last two years, lowest to highest. It would be good to hear how others interpret these figures.</span></span>

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