‘Mundane’ classes put thousands off computer science

28 October 2013
By Edd Gent
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"Mundane" ICT classes have put thousands of youngsters off computer science

Lessons in "mundane office skills" have turned hundreds of thousands of young people off computer science.

Sir David Bell said the UK urgently needs to tackle its "lost generation" of computer programmers or its high-tech firms will struggle to keep up with the rest of the world, as his university launches what is understood to be the UK's first free online university programming course

A former top civil servant at the Department for Education, Sir David said fewer undergraduates now have the talent and enthusiasm for the subject than those growing up in the 1980s and early 1990s with the first generation of home computers did.

He said the education system had got computing in schools "completely wrong" and backed current reforms which will see Information and Communications Technology (ICT) replaced with computer science.

Sir David said: "The UK will suffer for its lost generation of computer programmers. We risk the UK's high-tech firms struggling to remain competitive in a highly globalised industry."

While degree numbers for computer science have generally held up, it is "very worrying" that there are fewer hobbyist programmes outside of specialist courses, he said.

"Fewer undergraduates, particularly women, have the talent and enthusiasm of those growing up in the 1980s and early 1990s. Ministers and the wider school system got it completely wrong in teaching mundane office skills in ICT, instead of learning how to build software and we've now got to play catch up.

“Dull lessons and poor teaching has turned hundreds of thousands of students off computer science, that's something we'll struggle to pull back. The Coalition is absolutely right to take action but it's going to take years to really see an impact after two decades treading water. Universities and industry need to act."

Sir David said that the demand for programming courses shows that the perception that the subject is for "boffins" is nonsense and the people are savvier about the skills employers are interested in.

"Computer science is going to be a core skill whether you're working in financial services, pharmaceuticals, manufacturing, gaming or cyber security. Unless we get it right, the UK will struggle in its transition to a modern, high-tech economy," he said.

Professor Will Stewart, chair of the Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET) Communications Policy Panel, backed Sir David’s call for a more engaging computer science curriculum.

"We need to be teaching simple computer programming in an interactive and interesting context,” he said. “This could be achieved by programming robots or computer controlled models or setting design challenges in conjunction with the design and technology curricula, and by developing apps that run on smartphones or dedicated platforms such as Raspberry Pi.

“Consistent and high quality teacher support will be particularly important, but it is clear that at present there is still a shortage of teaching staff with the necessary knowledge and practical expertise.

“For computing, a greater focus on skills such as programming and algorithms (this is a bit broader than 'coding') will place greater demands on the abilities of teachers.

“In particular, it may be challenging to deliver this effectively in the early years when there are fewer opportunities to engage specialist teachers. The availability of suitable programming tools and other resources would also be critical to the success of teaching these skills.”

Reading’s Begin Programming MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) is due to go live later today. It opened for students to register last month, with 10,000 places filled in less than 24 hours.

The seven-week online course will teach students the basics of the Java programming language to create a space invader-style game from scratch.

The university said it is designed to be a taster for teenagers who want to study for a computer programming degree, a beginner's course for adults or to help post-graduates with maths, science and engineering courses.

Education Secretary Michael Gove has previously described ICT in schools as "demotivating and dull" and announced plans to replace it with computer science in the national curriculum and at GCSE.

GCSE computer science will also count towards the government's English Baccalaureate, which recognises pupils who score at least a C at GCSE in English, maths, science, history or geography and a foreign language.

A Department for Education spokeswoman said: "Computing is vital for the economy and our reforms will give children the skills and knowledge they need; in coding, computational thinking, problem-solving, digital literacy and computer science; to compete with their peers from around the world."

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