Original URL: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2006/02/06/bitesize_gcse/

Good enough for kids

How the BBC's GCSE site makes IT up

By Verity Stob

Posted in Verity Stob, 6th February 2006 15:57 GMT

Stob Sitting watching telly, a BBC trailer for its Bitesize GCSE revision programme caught my eye. This is an adjunct to the BBC website, a sort of punishment block, where young shavers are encouraged to swot up for their oncoming exams. What, I wondered idly, were our youngsters being taught about our own, dear trade? How had things moved from my own distant youth, when IT training had comprised, as I remember it, Mr S the maths teacher telling us where the Research Machines 380Z lived and emphatically interdicting its use?

Idle curiosity is the enemy of a quiet life. In two mouse clicks I had hit the relevant section of the Beeb's Bitesize website. Five clicks later I was muttering 'bloody hell!', and soon afterwards 'bloody, bloody hell!', and after that I discovered I was writing this exposé.

The first niggle to raise a hackle was that the Beeb's Mr Bitesize claims our subject is called not 'IT' but 'ICT': Information and Communications Technology.

I mean, why? Is he getting this out of a 20 year old textbook? Are the GCSE people (for I suppose that this is their idea) deliberately using a non-standard term in order to baffle the kids? That 'communications' bit was surely subsumed way back about the time Sir Tim typed his very first <HTML>.

Next, I started looking round the site itself, and soon found more things to mutter about.

For example: if you answer all questions correctly in the quick quiz for applications and program languages (I take it you mean programming languages, Mr Bitesize), it will award you 9/9. Given that you have just answered 10 questions, this comes as a surprise. Perhaps this is a case of the GCSE literally demanding 110 per cent from its examinees. Or rather, to avoid Bitesize-style standards, 111.1 per cent recurring.

Also, and sorry but I just can't bear to let this go, Mr Bitesize's English is dismal. There are examples galore - on this particular page he has lost control of his pronouns. At Q5 he writes 'A computer user thinks they have a problem with their hard drive', whereas at Q6 'An architect decides that she would like to design a building project on computer. What sort of software will she be buying?' I realise that to advocate the use of 'he' in both cases would mark me out as a reactionary extremist who makes Lynne Truss look like a linguistic libertarian, but surely some sort of consistency is in order?

The test on user interfaces is much harder to get right. Have a go now, if you doubt me. I'll wait.

Ready? How did you do? Thought so.

One reason it's difficult is, ironically in the context, the poor quality user interface for the last four questions. Have you never heard of dropdown combo boxes, Mr Bitesize?

The other reason is that the given answer to question 2 is, I assert, plain wrong.

Mr B describes a program that is only going to be used by its writer. Question 2 indicates that this program can have a command line interface because it doesn't need to be easy to use. Sound reasonable? I thought so, but it's not so if you want Mr B's mark. I suppose Mr B's answer to be a typo, although it is quite possible that Mr B doesn't understand the implications of his own question.

In the case of his little test on viruses, I am inclined to think Mr Bitesize just isn't aware of the facts. He asks 'Which of the following is true?', offering 'You can buy programs that tell you if you have a computer virus' as his point-scoring answer and 'Computer viruses can ruin your printer' as the wrong one.

In the framing of this question, he ignores the possibility that a virus detector misses one - as the blessèd and generally reliable Sophos actually did with me last week, when it was nonplussed by a new malware variant - or that a virus causes damage, or at least wastes resources, by sending garbage to a printer, an unlikely but documented scenario.

A well-informed student answering honestly, as opposed to trying to second-guess Mr B's level of ignorance, would be penalised.

Mr B could fix his question by rephrasing. 'You can buy programs that detect most computer viruses' and 'Computer viruses often ruin your printer' would do it. Silly me. We already know use of English isn't his thang.

My ire really kicked in when I read the quiz dealing with operating systems. This effort is notably rich in Mr B's trademark imbecilities. He asks at least two questions whose answers I claim are debatable depending on how you read them, he finally gets to type the word 'programme' where he means 'program', but most of all he indulges himself in that weediest of teacher's gambits: putting in a trick question.

He asks if 'deleting files from a CD-ROM' is a task for the operating system. He hopes that his victim will fail to notice that a CD-ROM proper is a read-only medium (or as he would doubtless put it a read-only media) and answer 'yes'.

Note to Mr B. On my PC, I can put writeable and rewriteable CDs and DVDs into what I call the 'CD-ROM' drive. I therefore describe all these silver discs 'CD-ROMs'. I know I'm not alone in this imprecise practice in our whacky world of 'ICT', and frankly I'm not going to take any lessons in terminology from you, sunshine. So: yes I do think that deleting files on my rewriteable CD-ROMs is a task for the OS. What do you do? Rub them out with your thumb?

But in some places Mr B surpasses himself, and drifts from the world of sloppy-but-arguable stuff into the sphere of demonstrable tosh.

A main frame (sic) he asserts 'operates differently from the simple PC... [it] can process two or more programs at the same time.' Well, stone the crows. More than two, eh? That must be a sight.

He says that 'an ICT system is a set-up consisting of hardware, software, data and the people who use them' (sic again, he means 'use it'). Oh yeah? So, to re-apply your defining technique to another sphere, an 'automobile system' is 'a set up consisting of metal, plastic, petrol and the jerk who just cut me up', eh Mr B?

(I think what Mr B really wants to say, if only he could keep his grammar on the road for half a sentence, is that IT is important because of the way it affects people. This is true enough, if strikingly trite and pompous, but to get his point across he has told a fib, and a lazy one at that.)

He thinks computers that run in real time 'have to be very fast and have a lot of processing power'. What, like the small, old-fashioned undigital computer that lives in my central heating thermostat, Mr B? It's called a 'bimetallic strip' and, although it maintains room temperature in real time it is neither speedy nor a regular star in MIPS benchmark tests.

(Ok, so that's a dodgy definition of 'computer' I'm using there, just to be annoying. Thought we'd give Matey back some of his own medicine. But I'm sure you can think up a straightforward counter-example of your own without straining, so I'm leaving that as an exercise. Latency-schmatency.)

'Multiprogramming' is 'a method of operating such that several programs appear to be running at once' says Mr B, further noting that the term usually applies to 'main frame' operation. On the other hand, further down the same page, 'multitasking usually applies to microcomputers whereby the computer is running a number of applications apparently at the same time'.

Mr B, nobody's multiprogrammed since IBM got permission to fire the man who used to walk in front of the System/360 with a red flag. Even then, my impression is that they didn't use the word in the way you use it, for example see Wikipedia's discussion. I think you don't have a clue what it means, so you made something likely up. Come clean with Aunty Verity. Am I right?

And so on, and on.

Some of these problems stem from insufficient attention when putting the website together. Others just display startling ignorance. It does make me wonder: what price will students pay relying on Bitesize coverage of other subjects?

I can afford to be complacent. Pointing out Mr B's blunders is just jolly fun for me. After all, I have no kids, and I won't be taking the GCSE exam in a few weeks...