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Is computer science the new Latin?

Spencer Thompson

11 January 2012


We should applaud the education secretary’s plans, announced today, to dramatically overhaul the provision of computer science education in schools. Whilst there is undoubtedly a debate to be had over the exact nature and implementation of the ‘open-source’ approach of his planned curriculum, the UK is already in such a perilous  state in terms of its computer science skills base that any action should be welcomed.

The problem goes beyond secondary and into tertiary and lifelong education. Firms from all sectors of the economy are finding it hard to recruit individuals with the right computer skills for the job. While calls for further sector specific publically funded training from businesses must always be taken with a pinch of salt leading gaming guru Ian Livingstone compared the subject with the role of Latin in previous times, as a discipline that underpins a wide variety of other knowledge areas. He recently co-authored a report on skills in the video games industry that highlighted problems for that sector in particular. Only 12% of graduates from specialist video games courses find a job in the industry within six months. This is not because the courses are over-subscribed, but because the graduates do not have the necessary skills. Prospective students are also often in the dark about which courses will deliver the best training.

Perceptions about computer science need to change. It has an image problem. It is a subject that should be regarded more highly by all of us; perhaps not as important as maths, say, but at least as important as most humanities and social sciences.  And certainly many more young women should be encouraged to enrol on university courses in the area.

The good news is that everyone is very worried about it. A number of exciting initiatives, many from the US, are making computer science accessible to as wide a group of people as possible. The website codeacademy.org has declared 2012 the year of code, and provides weekly in-browser lessons on JavaScript direct to your email inbox, free of charge. Why not have a go, it is quite fun.

The ICT revolution has not only made computer science more important as a field, it has also facilitated the provision of education in general to a mass audience. Open, online courses with automated marking schemes could certainly be provided more widely. The MIT open courseware system has seen a phenomenal demand for its free online videos of superstar MIT lecturers delivering courses, and khanacademy.org provides an enormous range of educational videos on virtually any subject, free of charge. In terms of hardware, the Indian government, along with the company Datawind, has started rolling out extremely low-cost tablet PCs (as low as $35) and has seen high demand from, amongst others, educational institutions.

It is not clear whether the education industry has fully digested the implications of this quietly proceeding revolution. The innovative provision of computer science using increasingly cheap and accessible computer technology could be extremely successful. Beyond this, there may well be wider implications in all subjects through a new, modern, ICT-powered education system.  

Comments in Chronological Order (Total 1 Comments)

Some Dude On The Internet

06 Dec 2014 11:55AM

Computer science may very well be the "new Latin", but it has little to do with video games and cheap tablet computers - it has, instead, to do with pencil, paper and notions of combinatorics, counting, algorithms, probability, algebra, logic.

Even numerical mathematics which kind of /exists/ because of the limitations of hardware in the first place doesn't need a computer to be taught - although it /is/ fun seeing your neat succession to compute pi going nowhere fast for no apparent reason - until you study conditioning and stuff.

Is computer science "as important" as maths?

Basically, computer science /is/ math.