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Issue 117 | September 2nd 2011 Contact the Editor | How to Contribute

Teaching the Innovators of Tomorrow
Where will the programmers of the future learn the skills they need?

by Mark Taoilinn

UK teachers putting the final touches to lessons plans for the new academic year were this week hit by harsh criticism from Google Chairman Eric Schmidt.  Speaking in Edinburgh recently Schmidt had this to say about the UK educational system:

“I was flabbergasted to learn that today computer science isn’t even taught as standard in U.K. schools. Your IT curriculum focuses on teaching how to use software, but it doesn’t teach people how it’s made. It risks throwing away your great computing heritage.”

Schmidt went on to lament the growing divergence between science and arts and called on educators to “re-ignite children’s passion for science, engineering and math.”  What he was saying is that giving children the skills to merely use computers is not enough. We need creators and innovators - education should inspire children to push the boundaries of what is possible and come up with new ‘best ways’ that us adults have never even thought of.  

This problem is not unique to the UK of course. Douglas Rushkoff, an America Media Theorist highlights the exact same problem in education in the US.

“Some of our schools have elected to offer “computer” classes, but instead of teaching programming, these classes almost invariably teach programs: how to use Microsoft Office, Adobe Photoshop, or any of the other commercial software packages used in the average workplace. We teach our kids how to get jobs in today’s marketplace rather than how to innovate for tomorrow’s.”
Source: Huffington Post

Back on this side of the pond, educators were themselves meeting to address this very issue a week before Schmidt brought so much attention to it. Speaking at the Educating Programmers Summit in Bletchley Park Jason Gorman, Codemanship CEO, told industry leaders and educators that

Each year there is an increase in demand for skilled programmers of around 10,000. Each year, 10,000 teachers qualify - but only three have a computing degree."

This skills gap will soon mean that there will be no one  able to teach the next generation of programmers. At that conference the Computing At Schools working group presented their 22 page model curriculum designed at encouraging students to learn core computing knowledge, rather than simply how to operate Microsoft Office. Attendees at the conference were asked by Google’s Ade Oshineye to imagine an inevitable future where everyone programs; "but some of us do it well enough to get paid for it". In this future “we'll look at the specialist programmers in the same way we look at scribes now". Programming is a creative process, he affirms, much like Schmidt’s call to narrow the gap between Science and the Arts. “We need people who can appreciate the beauty of a program, or the thing it does.”  To reach this future regulators will need to change the way they approach the teaching of computing sciences. Teachers should be trained and equipped to encourage experimentation and foster inventiveness from children who are themselves taught about what a computer is, how it works, and what the building blocks of programs are, so that they can take those building blocks and make wonderful new breakthroughs with them.

Falling into the innovation gap:
The implications of this are enormous. Where, in the developed world, will the next Steve Jobs or Bill Gates come from? The shift of computer knowledge and innovation to emerging markets will disturb the balance of power and could have a long term detrimental effect on the western world.

  “As we continue to look at programming as a menial skill to be outsourced to developing nations, we will lose our innovative superiority as well”

says Douglas Rushkoff in the Huffington Post.

“While this may not hurt American corporations capable of sourcing its code from anywhere, it would certainly hurt Americans looking for a skill set to replace our manufacturing jobs.”

In the UK there is a 49% decrease in secondary students taking IT courses to graduation since 2006.

"IT jobs are growing at four times the rate of the standard jobs market. With fewer people with appropriate IT skills coming out of education, there'll be no-one to fill the jobs available in the marketplace. We could see more off-shoring to India and China as a result,"

said Steve Beswick on the MicroSoft Uk Schools Blog.

And of course it’s not just computing jobs... in this extremely difficult economy everyone needs to be able to bring as many skills as possible to any potential employment. As we move towards a future where ‘everyone programs’ students who lack this basic skill will quickly be left behind by those who were taught the building blocks of programming along with their ABCs.  Everyone agrees that computers are becoming more and more integral to daily life, and only those with the skills to manipulate these machines, and create new ones, will be able to shape how our world progresses in the future.

That’s why at RunRev we applaud people like Steven White, from Gracemount High School, who is teaching his students how to program with LiveCode. Most of them will probably never become IT specialists, but that’s not what it’s about. As we march towards a future where programming is as core as skill as reading and writing Steven is giving his students the basic programming skills they will need to shape their own futures. 

Maybe it’s time we added a 4th R: Reading, Writing, Arithmetic, RunRev


About the Author

Mark Taoilinn is Sales and Marketing Manager for RunRev Ltd.


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