A few days ago the Guardian published an article stating that "the UK's attitude to computer education needs a reboot" lamenting the lack of computing education in schools and saying that if this is not urgently corrected then the UK will suffer economically in the future. The article was not unique as many other similar articles and blog posts have been written along the same lines but sometimes I feel that such articles just feed into fears about the standards in the education system and the UK's place in the world and offer little in the way of practical direction. Yet there is hope - if we confront the issues and acknowledge the vital role of lifelong learning as well as computing education in schools.
Computing isn't "cool". Sure, people like their consumer gadgets and there is nothing wrong with that, but the field of Computing suffers from huge image problems. Carole Cadwalladr writing in The Observer came right out and said it on her article about trying coding for a day:
....There are those who think computer coders are the geekiest nerds around. The kind of people – no, let's not beat about the bush here – the kind of men whose lack of personal skills and inability to get a girlfriend simply means that they have too much time on their hands because they're not having sex.
Why would any teenager want to go into a field with that sort of reputation? Of course this is a ridiculous stereotype but image matters to many teenagers and young people who are starting to find their way in the world. Attitudes in society will need to change. Computing skills and those who practice them must become valued in society. Stereotypes like this should become frowned upon.
This year the number of students taking a computing A-level exam decreased. The figure for the number of girls taking the subject was particularly depressing at just 297 for the whole of England, Wales and Northern Ireland combined. It seems that formal computing qualifications delivered by traditional educational establishments have always struggled to have a wide appeal. Computer Science degrees were not popular when I was in school twenty years ago and it seems they still aren't. It is easy to blame everybody else for this, but if I made a product and no one bought it it would be my fault. I can't help thinking that there must be something wrong with formal computing courses as they stand if they are not appealing to people. Why not rethink them? Change their focus? Make them more customer and people orientated? Ask students why they don't chose such courses?
It would be healthier too to keep the growth of computing jobs in perspective too. In this terrible recession it is easy to point to the few tech startups located at London's "Silicon Roundabout" and get excited because some of them are growing when so many sectors of the economy are shrinking. This doesn't mean that we should jump to the conclusion that the entire future economy is going to be based on such businesses. The danger in this idea is that once it is shown to be flawed it could lead to the push to get programming lessons into schools losing its momentum. Such businesses in reality create few jobs. Meanwhile many IT jobs are being outsourced to India. Also when the recession ends the businesses that survive in other sectors may prove a better investment as they recover in the good times. This doesn't mean that the tech sector is not important, but we must keep perspective. Basing too much of the reasoning to support programming in schools on the current set of economic circumstances could prove to be a fatally flawed argument, it is better instead to talk more about the long term benefits.
It would be easy to focus on everything above and then to say that everything is terrible. This is absolutely not the case. The idea of lifelong learning is the shining beacon of hope when it comes to computing education. Yes, absolutely get computing into schools, I support that 100%, but that process will take a lot of time. Amazing opportunities are opening up to adult learners who want to grasp these skills. Adults may not be quite as worried about the idea of "cool" as teenagers so might be more receptive to the idea of a career in computing.
What is really exciting now is that many opportunities to gain these skills are available at no charge! Sites like MIT OpenCourseWare, The Khan Academy and Code Academy offer courses that people can study when it suits them. Sure, it might not be as perfect a situation as people studying computing in school and then going on to do a Computer Science degree, but the world is not perfect. These approaches, alongside other adult education programmes, offer hope that people will be able to adapt and gain skills needed for the digital economy quickly. For younger people maybe seeing people move from other backgrounds into computing might just help the image of the field a bit.
Accepting the role of lifelong learning is an essential part of an adaptable workforce and economy. Not everyone knows what they want to do with their life in school, or even later. Understanding the idea that people might move into computing careers at various points in their life is they key to building a successful workforce for the digital economy in the UK. Attitudes will have to change but it is good aim to build a stronger and more inclusive future for computer education, but this will mean taking some new approaches and not just writing articles complaining about the current situation. The important thing is to give anyone who wants to go into computing, and those that teach them, as much support and encouragement as possible, regardless of their age or background. Then we must be patient and take the time to build enthusiasm for the subject.