The Problem that is Computing in Scotland

Introduction

I was invited to give a presentation at a Computing in Schools event in Edinburgh last week and I’d like to make a few personal observations on the current landscape. I’d also like to outline some of the feedback I received from teachers on the current syllabus, and add in some observations we have made from developing the Digital Zone (which is currently the only real resource in Scotland which actually covers all the subjects within N5, and which has been provided free-of-charge to pupils, teachers and parents). Finally I’d like to make a plea to universities to help their local schools, in both engagement, and working with teachers on how best to stimulate new talent into IT, especially in areas which have low attainment levels.

 A problem

We have a major problem in Scotland related to IT. Over the past few years, there has been a massive growth in IT-related areas Scotland, especially re-building many key industries, including with the public sector and the finance industry. Along with this there has been increased levels of innovation and enterprise, with many new companies being incubated with the major cities. There is thus lots of jobs for IT graduates, and we just can’t attract enough kids into the area.

In fact, few career options provide such as opportunity for moving into different areas, and most academic programmes allow students to move around and pick-off their key areas of interest. In Computing/IT, there are so many end points, such as for a Software Engineer, a Network Engineer, a Security Consultant, and so on (Figure 1). Along with this there’s a place for everyone, in architecting, designing, analysing, building, and even testing. So what’s the problem? Well the problem happens early on, and in Scotland this problem in being highlighted in N5 (CfE) and N6 (Highers), as schools are fishing around looking for new ways to engage pupils to take Computing as a subject. It’s a problem, as once a pupil have select two science subjects (typically Biology and Chemistry), and Maths and English, and then maybe one of History or Geography, then they face a timetabling problem in actually taking Computer Science. The fundamental problem, though, is how we get enough kids to see Computing as a career choice and not just something supports Facebook and a range of other useful things. As much as possible, we should see these new stars as our architectures of the future!

Slide4Figure 1: Jobs in IT

Haggis

Let’s get the elephant in the room out of the way first! With Haggis – yes, someone did come up with that name, perhaps dismissing WHISKEY and TARTAN as alternatives? – we have a new pseudo code language which abstracts the code. Why would we need another language, and especially on which has zero chance of being used outside Scotland? So, in the full session I did at the event, I did a poll, and asked the teachers what they thought of it, and not one teacher had a good word to say about it. Most just though it was pointless!

Overall it is meant to create a standardised pseudo code, in a way that kids can read it within an exam question. As someone who has taught Software Development for many years, and written books on the subject, I thought languages like Pascal do that very well, and at least they can be run on Windows, Mac and even a mobile phone, and produce an output for both a console and graphic screens. But, in Scotland, we created a new pseudo code for kids to read, which is fine, but then we then are told – well it’s not actually formal, and it’s a bit of this and that … and kids don’t have to write it … and we can hear a whole lot of back peddling going on!

I must admit if I taught with a language that wasn’t quite developed, and didn’t actually do anything, I’d dismiss it in a minute. We started, in the Digital Zone (Figure 2), to create a development environment and at least start to formlise it in a way that virtually every other programming language is, but we have given up, and there is no real formal specification and it is continually updated with this and that, which makes the whole things seem pointless. From a standards point-of-view, to go with Pascal for reading and writing code is no bad thing, as the jump to other langauges like C++, C#, Java, and so on, is not a massive one. It also doesn’t stop all the other languages being used to engage kids, but at least it is a way to bring them back together with a common standard.

 

haggisFigure 2: Haggis

Wild West

There’s a good deal of honest endeavor to improve the Computer Science syllabus in Scotland, and there have been massive moves forward in making it more relevant. Unfortunately in a subject in which the technology moves so fast, it is bound to become out-of-date shortly after it has been published. So in areas like Computer Security, we see things like viruses and worms, but today’s threats are more to do with DDoS and botnets, but, of course, the focus should be on learning key principles, and not the most up-to-date technology.

Mining ManThe main problem that we have in Scotland is that it is the Wild West in terms of what schools have been told they can teach as part of the software development part. With this, the syllabus defines that schools can pick their own software development environment, and kids can learn that, and then in the exam they can read Haggis pseudo code, and then write in the language of their choice. This is great in its scope, but a nightmare in defining standards and fairness.

So, if I choose machine code, will I be penalised in writing out 8086 code to implement a basic if …. then … else statement? From what I observed at the Computing in Schools event in Edinburgh last week, there was nothing the calmed my fears, and the range of activities was amazing, from full PHP/Apache Web infrastructures to Scratch/Arduino integration. Personally I can’t see how we can define any sort of standard for learning outcomes, if we do not even define the range of tools that students can use. I have, though, in the past, taught software development using both C and Pascal at the same time (in fact I used to throw-in Assembly Language were possible, but these were often just direct replacements for each other, where you show the same program for each, with only small changes in the structure and syntax used. But to allow such as wide range of systems to be used, seems to already build in a degree of unfairness on pupils whose schools cannot afford the best of systems, or who have the innovative teachers who are pushing forward the boundaries of the discipline.

Switched OnOne thing that really surprised me was when asked to the subject area that is most likely to stimulate kids to get into computing, the teachers voted heavily for computer security. Perhaps it was me being there influenced it a bit, but we have observed that kids really love security, and even in cracking codes (which seems like a natural thing for a child to love doing).  Over the past few years, we’ve been involved in code cracking classes for kids, and they have always received great feedback, and it is something that the kids love to compete with each other on, and be the best in the class! We’ve also been involved in the Xmas Cyber lecture, which scaled to over 3,000 pupils in Scotland, with over 10 lectures over the four cities of Glasgow, Edinburgh, Dundee and Stirling. Hopefully this year we will be extending it even further.

It is also pleasing to see that the top subjects for tests taken on the Bright Red Digital Zone have been Chemistry and Computer Science, and we hope to fully develop these environments for N5 and onto the Highers.

Conclusions

Manikin LoupeI really do feel sorry for teachers in Scotland just now, as the whole of the syllabus has been tipped up, and they must now re-build their resource. Perhaps it can be a good thing, as this Cloud generation can provide a whole range of on-line materials, but it is something that needs time to sink in, or we risk have another lost generation (I count myself as being part of one of the lost generations, where the move towards phonic writing and new independent learning, so a generation who’s basic skills in the 3Rs were left exposed).

For Computing, it is a careful balance, in increasing engagement in the Science, but also start to define proper standards, which are all-inclusive, and which allow kids from less privileged background to thrive as much as those who do not have the same level of resource allocation. I strongly believe that universities have a key role to play in the future, and should be directly helping their local schools, especially in areas with historical level of low academic achievement. This interaction will, hopefully, stimulate a new generation of data architects, and start to tap into a new pool, which have been disadvantaged from following a graduate career. Thus to leave schools to fight through this on their own is not a good solution, and universities can help in defining the right way forward, especially as they can see the output, and the routes that their students take.

Our society too has a great deal of work to do, in showing that IT is one of the great career of the 21st century, and one in which is ever changing and will end up creating our buildings of the future, where we create worlds which are all-inclusive for every person on the planet, and that there are no places that knowledge cannot reach! So I started with a problem … and it’s not a problem … it’s a journey, and as a nation we’ve started out on creating a new knowledge economy, where intellect is the key asset for any company, and where access to highly qualified graduates in IT is major driving for basing their company.

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