Why IT education in schools is failing the UK

Jeremy Swinfen Green, TEISS’s Head of Training and Consulting, bemoans the state of  IT education at GCSE level.

Why are our young people being turned off learning about computers? The British Computer Society has warned that the numbers studying for a computer qualification could halve by 2020. This would be a very significant problem for the UK.

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As Michael Mercieca, Chief Executive of Young Enterprise  puts it: “A decline in young people taking computer science courses is bad news for the future of the UK’s digital economy. Businesses are already grappling with huge challenges around cyber security and artificial intelligence and it’s vital that our education system equips the next generation to fill these roles."

Why is this happening? One reason might be the dire state of the current education syllabus. The existing GCSE in ICT is, as many people have said, little more than an explanation of how to use Microsoft Office.

OK, some useful principles, such as creating a database or handling a spreadsheet, are explained. But most of the course consists of information that children pick up naturally when at school (and will expand on at work). Things such as how to edit a document and how to design a presentation.

It might seem that common sense is starting to prevail: ICT is being scrapped in favour of the more rigorous Computer Science GCSE.

But is this a good thing in reality?

Sure, the ICT exam was trivial (that’s not the same thing as saying it was easy by the way). And it didn’t address the needs of the knowledge workers we are (or should be) producing.

But I am not convinced that Computer Science does either.

We certainly need a Computer Science qualification for kids who want to progress further into computing studies. Let’s face it, we need all the programmers we can get to write secure software and reverse engineer current cyber hacking software.

But there is a need for something else too. A qualification that helps young students use computers at school and at work. A qualification that helps them understand what computers can do, why they do it and how they can best be used at home and at work.

That is not the same as a qualification in software programming.

And it is not the same as a course that teaches advanced Microsoft Office skills: skills that most people will never need and which in any case can easily be picked up at work.

Business-friendly ICT education

Here are a few ideas for what a business-friendly course in ICT could include:

  • Using computers at work. Creating, saving and sharing documents, classifying documents, working remotely, working in teams; this could also cover computers used in finance, marketing, sales, HR, and business operations (including factories)
  • Researching with computers. We don’t believe all we read in the newspapers so why would be always believe Wikipedia without checking other sources; understanding how to research online (including how to use advanced search queries) is a fundamental business skill
  • Health and safety. Working with computers including issues around physical health (eyesight, repetitive strain) and mental health (online bullying, working from home, being on call 24/7)
  • Computers and the law. Any useful qualification would need to include consideration of issues such as data protection, discrimination, copyright, libel, contracts, distance selling and advertising regulations; it would also need to cover how to behave online from both an ethical and legal perspective
  • Artificial intelligence and ethics. A bit off the wall? Well, this will increasingly become an issue for many industries: automotive, healthcare, financial services, retail and the public sector
  • Creativity and innovation: How can computers be used to drive innovation: the syllabus could cover web experiments, idea sharing technology like Wazoku, and the use of "Big Data" to come up with new ideas
  • Data protection. This is related to AI (and the automated manipulation of data to create decisions, which under GDPR we will have a right to object to); but it also needs to cover why it is important to keep personal and organisational information safe
  • Cyber security and keeping safe at work and on social media. This is related to data protection of course but going wider and covering issues such as trust, motivation and the digital footprint we all leave behind especially when we use social media
  • Graphic design basics. So that we can avoid the design horrors too often produced when people have unfettered access to hundreds of fonts; this should include consideration of user centred design so that people understand what can go wrong when end users are left out of the development process; it also links to cyber security and the importance of designing security processes that work for the end user
  • Project management. A fundamental aspect of almost any IT project, but also intensely useful in most business situations
  • The downsides of computers. The problems that computers can bring, including: lower productivity such as unnecessary quality e.g. in presentations - over processing is one of the "seven wastes", and excessive interruptions; and lower engagement at work in part caused by the "always on" nature of technology

Business friendly education with hardly a byte or an html tag in sight! But such a course would fit our future workforce for world in which computers will be an essential part of almost everyone’s working day.

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