(This is a guest blog by Mike Chiles, based on an address at the Western Cape IT Learner’s Awards)

The two subjects Computer Applications Technology (CAT) and Information Technology (IT) have their roots in a subject called Computer Studies that started as an official subject in the Western Cape in 1979, a little over 33 years ago.  Computer Studies has changed its nature and been through a few versions since then culminating in 2006 with the introduction of OBE to the FET band at schools where it became the subjects as we know them today.  You will no doubt know that we are going through yet another iteration, called CAPS.

In 2011, 549 learners sat their final IT examination in the Western Cape and 8 557 sat their final CAT examination.  In comparison to other subjects offered in the Western Cape these numbers like some others are relatively small and consequently do not appear on the radar when it comes to the provincial awards ceremony held at the beginning of each year.

You will already have heard that one of the objectives of the IITPSA is to “elevate the level of ICT capability in Southern Africa”.  It is for this reason that the Western Cape Chapter decided, a while ago, to institute these awards where we recognise those learners who have achieved in CAT and IT.  We also recognise the educators who put in many hours of hard work and provide the opportunities so that their learners can succeed.

What is of some concern to many is that the numbers of learners taking these computer-based subjects at schools in the Western Cape and across the country are still relatively low and, of more concern, are starting to decline.

At a recent policy conference held at Gallagher Estate in Midrand it is reported that Jacob Zuma stated that “SA needs to ensure that ICT becomes an enabler in the country”.  He has tasked the Dept of Communications with the development of a new ICT policy – hence the ICT Indaba recently held at the CTICC.  He furthermore stated that “On the skills front, many young people from historically-disadvantaged backgrounds come out of the basic education system, never having been exposed to ICTs. This impacts their performance in institutions of higher learning, as well as their ability to adapt and become competent in the use of ICTs.”  So the education system clearly has a challenge that it needs to meet.  This challenge is to not only provide computer laboratories for curriculum purposes (such as those provided by the Khanya Project and Gauteng Online) but also to develop learners’ competence in the use of ICTs.  This of course, in addition to the provision of textbooks and other learning resources.

However, I have been told that in one province up to 30 schools have been instructed by their MEC to drop CAT from their subject list as from 2012, while in some of the former Model C schools CAT is being dropped and Dramatic Arts or similar subjects are being introduced.  The IT numbers are on the decline for a number of reasons, chief of which is the difficulty of obtaining suitably qualified teachers.

So why are the CAT numbers declining, you might ask?  It has everything to do with what has become known as the “designated list”.  This is a list of subjects that tertiary institutions require learners to take in order to gain entry to a degree course.  This list includes the gateway subjects (Languages, Maths and Math Lit, Life Sciences, Accounting, etc.) and other subjects such as Information Technology, Dramatic Arts, Consumer Studies, Religious Studies, etc. but not Computer Applications Technology.  I’m aware that some research is now being done on the “designated list” by HESA (Higher Education South Africa) but I believe that pressure needs to be brought to bear on the authorities to include CAT on the “designated list”, after all many of the tertiary institutions require their students to obtain some form of computer literacy before they can graduate and we are living in a world where the workplace requires greater competence in the use of technology.  These days one stands a better chance of getting into tertiary education to study a B.Sc by taking Consumer Studies (Domestic Science) and not CAT at school level.

So my plea is for the authorities to carefully look at the computer-based subjects at school level so that, at the very least, education can give effect to the statement made by Jacob Zuma about increasing the ICT competence of learners in the basic education system.

Mike Chiles retired as Director: e-Learning after more than 40 years in secondary school education.  He started Computer Studies in the Western Cape in 1979 and is still intimately involved with both CAT and IT.  He has a passion for endeavouring to support educators using Web 2.0 technologies. Mike is a Fellow of Institute of Information Technology Professionals South Africa .