Is computer science the new Latin?
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 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.