Computing: Enabling a Digital Wales?

Dr Tom Crick is a Lecturer in Computing at the University of Wales Institute, Cardiff (UWIC) and is the leader of Computing at School (CAS) in 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 (HPC) Wales and even Improving Care through ICT for Health in Wales, has 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 equiping 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 spectactularly 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 disasterous. 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.

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  1. Alan White
    Posted 12/03/2011 at 22:35 | Permalink

    This is a fascinating and at the same time disturbing article. Sadly, I guess I am one of the “PowerPoint generation” you refer to. The figures certainly indicate that we in Wales have a significant amount of work to do. The £6m plus £13m is encouraging but it seems like there are a lot of loose ends to pull together to turn around a disengaged generation of young people. It would require a fundamental change in the teaching of computing. Interestingly, my daughter often came home from school to tell stories of a shallow approach to ICT teaching in her school and how discouraging that was. I look forward to better things and wish you well with these enabling initiatives.

  2. Posted 17/03/2011 at 13:33 | Permalink

    Good to see that these issues start to be taken more seriously. Just tried to make a point on social reasons for why everyone should learn far more about programming at the Philosophy Cafe Cardiff – also see D. Rushkoff and his book Programm or be Programmed. Eventually audio and slides of the talk should appear somewhere on that web site. I will talk about something similar at the Z-Day on the 19th of March at the Cardiff Arts School at 12:00.

  3. Richard Staniforth
    Posted 21/03/2011 at 11:11 | Permalink

    Powerful argument. The teaching of programming skills is clearly lacking in schools where computer studies appears to equal IT and focus around the use of microsoft office. Students are turned off by the repetitive project work which they undertake even at this (very entry) level, often taught to curriculum by under motivated staff who lack basic programming skills themselves. Simple programming can deliver exciting and surprising results for younger learners which with judicious handling could really inspire. There is increasing awareness of the way computers control our lives from the washing machine, car, bus stop to finance, manufacturing, health, education. However there appears to be a blindness when looking at the underlying programming required for these processes. Students are left ignorant of exciting future potential and consequently have even less idea of the expectations of HE courses, research opportunities and real world business applications developers.

    As those who apply to HE have little idea what to expect it seems to me that institutions are often tempted to reduce the complexity of core programming course work, using instead niche software packages to avoid intimidating students. This in turn leads to the delivery of students to the workplace without the core skills that businesses require to exploit the many commercial (and earning) opportunities. It would be interesting to look at research into the expectations/experiences of SME team leaders and corporate managers with demonstrable programming requirements in industry.

  4. peter sishton
    Posted 21/03/2011 at 17:40 | Permalink

    Good to see this discussion is on going. e-skills UK Labour Market Intelligence for Wales for 2011 evidences the following:-

    2.1 Technology is key to Wales and the rest of the UK’s economic revival
    Technology is the key ingredient for global competitiveness in the private sector and for efficiency in the public sector. The IT & Telecoms industry in Wales currently delivers an annual GVA contribution in excess of £1.2 billion, 5% of the total Wales economy and is recognised as a key sector for economic renewal.
    2.2 The importance of IT employment, now and in the future
    There are more than 112,000 IT & Telecoms workplaces in Wales – 84% of these are services orientated and two thirds of employees (67%) are based in small or medium sized companies.
    Overall 39,000 people work in IT & Telecoms in Wales. 16,000 people are directly employed in the IT & Telecoms industry itself and 23,000 people work in IT & Telecoms professional roles in other sectors of the economy.
    Globalisation means that IT & Telecoms work in Wales is increasingly focussed on higher value, highly skilled roles. Growth in the sector is predicted to continue strongly to 2019 with employment in the IT industry expected to grow at 1.21% per annum, nearly five times faster than the predicted average employment growth for Wales. Over 17,000 new IT & Telecoms professionals are needed in Wales over the next five years to meet projected growth and replacement requirements.
    2.3 IT skills demand indicates potential areas for concern
    Despite weaknesses in the economy, demand for IT & Telecoms professional in Wales has risen by around 13% over the past year, currently averaging about 900 advertised positions a quarter. Around two in three (60%) of IT & Telecoms recent positions advertised by employers in Wales were for Systems Design or Systems Development. The most commonly advertised job specific, technical skills required by employers in Wales were: SQL, .NET, C#, SQL Server, ASP, JavaScript, Java, PHP, HTTP and Visual Basic.

    General shortfalls in the skills of individuals applying for IT & Telecoms positions appear relatively common place particularly in respect of business skills, higher level technical skills and sector knowledge / experience. And although skills shortages are currently at a relatively low level, they are most likely to be reported by recruiters that are medium to large in size or operating the IT & Telecoms industry itself.
    Such shortages are reported to result in delayed recruitment and an increase in advertising and recruitment spend. In the longer term, skills and recruitment issues often lead to: delays in developing new products and services, difficulties introducing technological change and a loss of business or orders to competitors.
    2.4 IT skills development and education
    IT related Higher Education remains an important source of talent for the sector’s labour force requirements. In contrast to the rest of the UK, the number of applicants to Computing degree courses in Wales has been rising since 2004 but females account for only 16% of people on Computing related degrees.
    In 2008/9 there were 1,275 Computing degree qualifiers from Higher Education Institutes in Wales. However, 40% of new graduate entrants to IT & Telecoms occupations are from degree disciplines other than Computing.
    There was a 13% decline in the number of people ‘in learning’ on FE IT professional courses between 2008 and 2009 and the majority of learning is below Level 3, the accepted entry level for IT & Telecoms occupations. And, whilst the number of people taking the less industry-relevant ICT A-level has increased, A-level Computing in Wales has seen a 63% drop in entrants since 2004.

    3.0 Solutions to develop future talent and meet current demand for skills
    3.1 There are major issues with IT-related education in schools and with the uptake of IT-related subjects in higher education. These are seriously compromising the pipeline of future talent. e skills UK research shows students’ experience of IT at Key Stage 4 is a major factor in the decrease in IT-related education at school and in FE. Although university applications for Computing are rising in Wales (but not at the same rate as for all subjects), a pervasive gender imbalance remains.
    3.2 e-skills UK is supporting economic growth in Wales by strengthening the pipeline of talent in the Economic priority renewal sectors as defined by WAG. ICT and the Creative industries (which include Software, Computer Games and Electronic publishing) are strategically important in terms of economic recovery, future potential and inward investment.
    3.3 In order to encourage young people, parents, teachers and careers advisors to consider relevant further study and a career path in IT we need to:
    • Promote the sector as a high growth, high skill sector with excellent earning potential and career prospects for young people and adults.
    • Ensure that IT-related qualifications and curriculum in Wales are valued by industry and delivered by quality higher and further education providers.
    • Continue to strengthen links between employers and universities and FE and training providers
    • Ensure teachers have access to relevant CPD in order to deliver an industry endorsed curriculum.
    • Embed Computing within the STEM agenda, capitalising on rising applications to Computing in Wales.
    • Develop apprenticeship pathways with colleges and employers as a viable alternative to higher education.
    • Develop in partnership with Universities relevant, employer led degrees and foundation degrees that blend technology and business skills.
    • Incentivise schools, colleges and universities to deliver qualifications relevant to the priority sectors including ICT.

    Hope that is of interest.

  5. Posted 22/03/2011 at 00:46 | Permalink

    Thank you all for your interesting points; I think there is still significant work to be done, both from a curriculum perspective, but also from an educational policy perspective. It is very hard to engage with students and expect them to choose to study Computing at GCSE and A-level (and then at degree level) when they have lost interest at KS3.

    I also want to reiterate the seriousness of the terminology problem (as per the Dijkstra quotation) and hence the perception of the subject as an academic discipline (or career) — to the general public, Computing and Computer Science are just about computers…and everyone knows how to use a computer, right? This is a significant problem.

    If you are interested in the activities of Computing at School (CAS), especially in Wales, then please get involved!

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  • […] A few weeks ago I was invited to write a blog post for the Campaign for Science & Engineering (CaSE), discussing the impending devolved elections in Wales. Since I now have my own blog, I thought I would link to it and see what happens over the next month or so leading up to the elections. You can read it here: Computing: Enabling a Digital Wales? […]

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