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The future of technology education in Scotland as the digital economy grows

Neil Barr, managing director of Alienation Digital offers his views on the prospects for the digital economy in Scotland and why, in his opinion, more needs to be invested in it at all levels of education.

The BBC hit the nail on the head when its recent technology documentary argued that a lack of computer science teaching in schools was failing pupils and holding the UK back from being world leaders in the industry.

A range of commentators, from industry veteran Ian Livingstone - who has co-written a report for the government - to Google chairman Eric Schmidt, back that view and completely re-enforced my own opinion on the subject.

While the BBC and Schmidt looked at this issue from a UK perspective, the prospects for the digital economy in Scotland are also very poor.

Schmidt’s argument was that the IT curriculum “focuses on teaching how to use software, but gives no insight into how it’s made”, calling for more science, engineering and maths in school. And he’s right.

Quite simply the future is digital. We are already well behind other economies in this area and Scotland will become a third world digital economy if we don't keep up.

The world is changing and computing, computers and technology all need to be integral to education from the very beginning. By the time my nieces and nephews graduate, they won't be able to survive very well in this world unless they have a good grasp of all things digital.

It's a bit like car engines - there are those who buy a car, but have no idea what's going on under the bonnet and just hope that nothing goes wrong or someone else can sort things for them. Do we want to be the country that hasn't a clue how it all works and loses out to other countries who "get it"?

I can only surmise that universities are not really preparing students for the real world. Who’s to blame for that is less important than how we react now and what level of importance and investment is placed in digital from government level through education to the business world.

Part of the problem, in my opinion, is that many lecturers aren’t being tasked with teaching people how to adapt and learn correctly, they simply cram as much knowledge as possible into the students' heads.

The evidence is there for me to see when we ask developer candidates to sit a short problem solving test. Nine times out of ten, they do poorly at it - and it's not even that hard a test. Few manage to complete it in the time given.

As I've never been through a computing degree, I can only guess at some of the reasons why. I think partly it's down to the way people are educated - they have a list of things to learn, the course/tutors stick to that and that's the end of it.

Even doing well in the test is not always a guarantee that the person will do well in the job. We've had a few cases where they've made it through, but when it came to doing the job they realised it's a lot tougher than they thought it would be. It's fast moving work.
Commercial pressures mean you have to deliver work quickly. You also have to contend with fast moving technologies, so you are constantly learning. It's not a job where you can sit back and coast along. And it's most definitely not a job where a little HTML will get you a long way. Web programming can be pretty heavy duty stuff these days.

In a technological field where things are bound to develop at a very fast pace, this failure to keep up with the speed of change is an absolute aberration. Teaching a specific programming language is about as meaningful as buying a child clothes when he's five and expecting him to wear the same clothes the rest of his life. Most developers out of university have learnt out-of-the-box solutions, in a world and a field where nothing is ever out-of-the-box. School students are being taught a computing curriculum that was set in 2005 and involves little in the way of programming.

Our Senior Developer pointed out that about 80% of the people who were doing computing with him at university are now doing something totally unrelated (often working in pubs, retail shops...). Out of the remaining 20%, most of them work doing relatively menial IT jobs (e.g. PC maintenance and such). At the end of his course, one of his lecturers pointed out that less than 10% of the people in the class were able to make a new/working program from scratch. When they come to sit our developer test, they're flummoxed - and we're not even asking them to write any code, just solve a real world problem.

This year saw the appearance of a "web design and Internet technology" BSc (Southampton Uni), which is a step forward, but the Internet's been around for nearly 20 years and we have nothing equivalent in Scotland. It will hopefully stop lecturers viewing Internet technology as somehow a 2nd class subject.

This issue goes beyond universities in my view. It is 2011 and computing should be an integral part of every-one's education from primary school upwards.

Schools and universities should utilise agencies and businesses working "at the coal face". Yes, the nature of degree courses mean that there has to be a set curriculum but equally there needs to be a certain amount of freedom given to tutors to adapt and change things as new things come along.

My own business may have recruited five staff recently but the biggest challenge to us remains a limited graduate IT talent pool which is unprepared for the reality that is a fast-moving, commercially-driven workplace. My guess is that some of the talent is being attracted away (to the rest of UK and abroad), some of it is being sucked up by the bigger companies who can afford bigger salaries and there does seem to be a drop in foreign students who studied in Scotland applying. Part of that may be down to new immigration policies and targets, making it harder for graduates to stay in the country once they've completed their degree.

Most "fresh" developers don't understand that computers are just a tool to help with programming, not an end in themselves. The best developers we've met have dabbled in other things: philosophy, physics, cooking, biology etc. Programming is about adapting and being creative, about seeing a problem not as a computer would see it but as a complex amalgamation of simple problems, essentially the same way you would tackle most problems in life. Schools should drive people's curiosity, teach them how to use and accumulate knowledge as opposed to force-feeding it.

Scotland is making steps in the right direction with things like the GLOW network in schools - but it's not far enough. We need to get more 'devices' in the hands of children and let them play with them, tinker with them, take them apart, create their own programmes, etc.

I’d also make sure every household, every family, every child has access to a computer and fast Internet access. The broadband initiatives are welcome, but don't go anywhere near far enough. The speeds we are talking about are pitiful.

In Finland access to broadband is a legal right while the Asia/Pacific region really understands that high speed broadband and IT literate employees bring strong economical benefits. Countries like South Korea (whilst it has internet censorship issues) are amongst the most connected, enjoying average speeds of 50-100mbps and benefitting from a population that grows up 'connected'. They are investing in 1Gbit services at a cost of almost $25b USD which is expected to create around 100k+ jobs. South Korean's see technology as a key sector for increasing the country's prosperity and stability.

These are the kind of statements of intent of nations serious about their digital economies. I’d like to see Scotland making similar messages:
• Teach more computing in primary and secondary schools and make it compulsory.
• Make sure everyone has access to a computer. Hardware is getting cheaper and cheaper so it doesn't have to be that expensive.
• Invest in super-fast broadband and wi-fi, and make sure that every home and every business has access - it's as vital as water in this day and age.
• Allow tutors and teachers to adapt and update curriculums.

Let's not forget, this is not just about programmers - to survive in this day and age, to keep in your job, almost everyone needs to have a good grounding on computing matters. Think about what would be possible if we had the most 'connected' country, fast access wherever you were, an IT-savvy population and staff that saw digital as a tool to create really innovative solutions to everyday problems.

In the same way Scotland wants to become a world leader in green energy technologies, we should be doing the same for digital. We need good people now. We need people who see web development as something more than a small subset of computing, or as inferior to other programming options. And for that, we need the universities to wake up to the fact the world has changed.

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