Computing: Enabling a Digital Wales?

A few weeks ago I was invited to write a blog post for the Campaign for Science & Engineering (CaSE), discussing science policy issues relating to the impending devolved elections in Wales. Since I now have my own blog, I thought I would repost it here and keep an eye on any science policy developments over the next month or so in the lead up to the elections on 5th May:

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Computing: Enabling a Digital Wales?

In December 2010, the Welsh Assembly Government outlined a framework for Delivering a Digital Wales, a wide-ranging strategy to reflect the importance digital technologies now play in our lives, touching virtually every strand of public and private sector activity. The WAG Economic Renewal Programme further reinforced the importance of ICT/Digital Economy as one of the six priority sectors for economic renewal.

Deputy Minister for Science, Innovation and Skills, Lesley Griffiths said at the Digital Wales launch:

The growth of our economy and the well-being of our citizens are now inexorably linked to advances in technology. We must be prepared to respond quickly to new opportunities and challenges that rapid technological change will continue to bring.

While substantial inroads in developing the infrastructure for a digital economy in Wales have been made, there is still a long way to go. A third of the adult population in Wales do not use the Internet, less than 40% of Welsh SMEs actually sell online and one in six Welsh employers consider the IT skills of their employees insufficient.

Large-scale ICT infrastructure improvements, including the roll-out of superfast broadband across parts of Wales, the funding of High Performance Computing Wales and even Improving Care through ICT for Health in Wales, have created a strong platform to support the proposed Digital Wales plan, but what about the strategic development of the required technically-skilled workforce? Emphasis has been placed on broadening and deepening the skills base in Wales, but is this being done in the right areas?

Understanding Computing

The strategic importance of the provision of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) subjects and careers and their contribution to the UK economy has been frequently discussed, but there appears to be a fundamental misunderstanding with where Computing and related disciplines sit within the STEM portfolio. Furthermore, there are a number of questions about how Computing is taught in schools across the UK; in essence, it isn’t. As in England, most schools in Wales teach ICT (Information & Communication Technology) rather than Computing. Unfortunately, ICT invariably consists solely of teaching how to use office productivity software such as word processors and spreadsheets. This is creating a generation of technology consumers (the “PowerPoint generation”), who do not have any deep comprehension of the technologies they are using beyond a superficial application-focused understanding. Futhermore, it is disengaging students who mistakenly believe that this is what Computing as a discipline (or potential career) is actually about.

A part of the Digital Wales agenda is focused on equipping people to become digital citizens; one facet of this is educating children so that by the time they become adults they are capable of making a valuable contribution to the digital society and economy. And therein lies the importance and relevance of Computing education; schools should equip every child with the basic understanding of how computers work and with the technological capabilities to take part in a knowledge-based society and economy. By spectacularly failing to do this, there is a serious problem.

Part of this is perhaps to do with terminology: Computing is not just about computers (as per Edsger W. Dijkstra’s famous quote: “Computer science is no more about computers than astronomy is about telescopes.”); it embodies deeper computational thinking, problem-solving and analytical skills. In some ways, it is the quintessential STEM subject, involving scientific enquiry, engineering design and mathematical foundations.

Positive Steps

The importance of the creative industries in Wales (including recent funding for West Wales and the Valleys) demonstrates that being able to innovate with technology is a crucial part of the future economic strength of Wales. Not having the skilled workforce or graduates to supply this future demand would be disastrous. However, there are a number of recently announced initiatives that are addressing this lack of strategic focus on Computing education and training.

The announcement in February 2011 of £6m funding over three years for the Technocamps project was a huge step forward; it aims to encourage young people in Wales to follow in the footsteps of successful technologists and entrepreneurs by inspiring them to study Computing-based topics underpinning and aligned with the STEM subjects. Over 2,600 pupils from across the Convergence area of Wales will get the chance to develop their technical skills and gain an insight into the wide range of Computing-related careers open to them.

Technocamps is further supported by the announcement in October 2010 of 13m investment over five years for Software Alliance Wales (SAW), which will boost the growth and competitiveness of the strategically important digital technology sector. One priority of SAW is to increase higher-level ICT skills across all business and industry sectors. Complementary funding was also announced in 2010 for the National Science Academy and STEM Cymru to ensure Wales has a continuous pipeline of people graduating from colleges and universities with the appropriate qualifications and skills.

But there is still significant work to be done; Computing at School (CAS), a membership association formally supported by BCS, The Chartered Institute for IT, is actively working in Wales in partnership with the Technocamps project to support and promote the teaching of Computing in Wales and stimulate curriculum change. The widely reported Royal Society review into Computing in Schools, along with its importance and implications for the economic and scientific strength of the UK, is due in November 2011. A national debate on subjects in Wales announced in February 2011 by Leighton Andrews, Deputy Minister for Children, Education and Lifelong Learning, to discuss the future of A-level and vocational subjects in Wales, will hopefully recognise the importance of Computing in supporting future economic growth and enabling a Digital Wales. In England, the Department of Education review of the National Curriculum has restarted a similar debate; Scotland has already included Computing as part of its Curriculum of Excellence. It would be extraordinary if Wales did not do the same.

(A related article has been written by Dr Bill Mitchell, Director of the BCS Academy of Computing, the learned society dedicated to advancing computing as an academic discipline: The Collapse of Computing Education in English Schools)

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