Today’s “University View” column in the Western Mail

This is the short article I wrote for the University View column in today’s Western Mail:

Technology is arguably the biggest lever on our lives, affecting everything from the way we communicate, do business, shop, travel, access information and are entertained. Our dependence on digital infrastructure is increasing all the time; from the demand for high-bandwidth Internet connectivity through to the devices we carry in our pockets. We truly live in a computational world, glued together by software.

But the real question is: do we direct technology, or do we let ourselves be directed by it and those who have mastered it? “Choose the former,” writes author Douglas Rushkoff, “and you gain access to the control panel of civilisation. Choose the latter, and it could be the last real choice you get to make”; in essence: program or be programmed.

So why do we have an seemingly antiquated perspective of technology education, primarily focusing on developing increasingly transient IT user skills, rather than equipping young people with a deeper understanding of how technology works, on how to solve problems with technology, on programming and computational thinking skills? Why are we not developing a generation of digital creators, empowered to make, break and manipulate their digital world, rather than a generation who are becoming consumers of technology?

This is a question I have been asking repeatedly over the past couple of years. Last year I co-chaired the Welsh Government’s review of the ICT curriculum, in light of significant reform across the rest of the UK. From September, there will be a new compulsory subject called Computing replacing ICT in England from aged five onwards, focusing on computer science, programming and computational thinking: “A high-quality computing education equips pupils to use computational thinking and creativity to understand and change the world.” Precisely so.

We are currently in the midst of a significant review of education in Wales, asking fundamental questions about what education should achieve for young people. Alongside this we have long term policy evolving around skills, identifying the types of skills we require to create a healthy and prosperous society that is economically secure but also agile and adaptable to changing industries and sectors. While I recognise it is important that we take stock of where we are in Wales and identify the most appropriate solutions to some of our educational problems, it seems bizarre that we are delaying on what appears to be a no-brainer: making digital skills and computing education a core part of our curriculum. It is not a question of rushing into solutions, or copying other countries — this is about creating aspirations for our young people, developing future-proof skills and global competitiveness. I am baffled that we still have to justify why they should be core for all. We should turn the question around: can anyone justify why we shouldn’t make computing a core part of the curriculum?

Ultimately it comes down to what we want a future Wales to look like. Do we want to be a knowledge economy, leveraging our culture and being innovative and creative with technology? The Welsh Government have identified a number of priority sectors for economic renewal, alongside significant investment in our science and engineering research base, as well as recognising the broader societal and economic importance of e-infrastructure, connectivity and digital inclusion. All of these are predicated on having a country and citizenry with high-value digital and computational skills. It currently remains to be seen if we can deliver a digital Wales.

 
(N.B. text published in the print copy of the paper may differ slightly due to copy-editing)

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