Have you watched your children play Minecraft? Teachers at a school in Sweden have and decided the block-building computer game was so intellectually engaging that it should be compulsory. Here in the UK we’re still stuck in an educational minefield where computing is concerned.
I’ll declare my hand here as I’m involved in a project to make computing exciting. I’m really struggling to understand why we seem incapable of using the amazing online world we now live in to inspire young people in the classroom.
On the same day that Michael Gove announced his U-turn on the scrapping GCSEs – meaning computing won’t now be elevated to a formal science option for English secondary school pupils – the Department for Education issued its latest report on the coalition’s plans to improve the teaching of computing. Reading ‘The National Curriculum in England Framework’ is like reading a list of what we should absolutely not to do to make the subject exciting. The report talks of wanting children to “analyse problems in computational terms” and “evaluate and apply IT – including ‘unfamiliar technologies’ – to problem solving”.
There’s the problem. By describing computing in such cold terms, albeit fundamentally correct, we are in danger of alienating a whole generation of potentially talented pupils from engaging with technology – pupils with the skills that UK plc will require over the coming decades.
Statistics provided by the Department of Education show that just 3,420 A-Level students had taken up computing during 2011/2012, down from a high of 12,529 in 1998, a trend that is mirrored in Scotland where the number of young Scots choosing to study IT/digital media related courses has declined by 13 per cent over the last five years.
Given the role that technology plays in our personal and professional lives, the benefits that it brings, and the employment potential that it offers, we should have young people battering down our doors to further their skills in this area.
IT, technology, ICT or whatever you want to call it has a problem, an image problem. We are simply not making IT ‘sexy’.
The Corporate IT Forum Education and Skills Commission (CIFESC) recently stated that closing the IT skills gap requires input from all major employers, not just those classed as IT sector, and in a review of ICT skills by consultants SQW for Skills Development Scotland it was recognised that students and their advisors (including parents) often have an extremely poor understanding of IT-related careers, and young people commonly hold negative misperceptions as a result. Major ones include that technology is an anti-social subject and the domain of the stereotypical ‘geek’ (a ponytailed, nocturnal Goth-like creature, who shuns society by residing in the parent’s basement playing World of Warcraft).
So it’s not just education but our industry too. We are basically guilty of making computing uninspiring and a turn off.
And now I’m involved with a team of people that have decided to do something about it. I am working on a pilot project to create a digital skills academy in Helensburgh, Scotland, which was the birthplace of John Logie Baird, one of the world’s greatest technology pioneers.
Plans are underway to convert a three storey Victorian warehouse into the Heroes Centre, a multipurpose digital academy and entertainment facility. The Heroes Centre will deliver over 4,600 hours of fun, vibrant, creative courses/workshops with titles like ‘ Innovate & Create’, ‘App Creation’, ‘Game On’, and ‘Camera/Action’, allowing people of all stages of life to increase their IT awareness and skills and provide them with real opportunities to engage in the digital economy. It will allow young people to express themselves freely and creatively through programming, video skills and content creation. Importantly it will cross cut age barriers with younger people introducing and engaging with older generations around the topic of IT, leading to an atmosphere of inclusion, value and respect. And as importantly, the facility will operate at hours to suit everyone.
Novelist & App Designer Fergus McNeill, who left school at an early age to pursue an award-winning career in games design and creation, is one of our Heroes Centre champions. “For years, we’ve focused on teaching young people to be customers and consumers, rather than creators and innovators,” he explains. “Doing so anchors them at the wrong end of the IT food chain, and steadily pushes jobs and the industry overseas. It’s vital that we turn this around, encouraging young people to engage with IT, making them comfortable and confident enough to use technology in whatever career choices they make.”
Digital technology offers a social and cultural stimulus by providing more opportunities and greater flexibility in both work and leisure. Digital engagement provides access to markets, jobs and distant relatives, but I don’t believe that this can be delivered at a national level it must be nurtured and encouraged locally and we shouldn’t be reliant on the established Education to solve our issues for us. Of course, formal education has a major part to play but it is hindered by physical ‘opening hours’ and the assumption that once a pupil steps away from the premises, he or she has access to technology out of hours which is not always the case.
Increasingly, the concept of “social exclusion” needs to include “digital exclusion” since more and more opportunities and services depend upon technology. Ensuring access for communities must be an essential part of urban and social regeneration strategies the UK is to successfully compete on the global stage.
By providing access to industry professionals and technology during hours to suit, at a heavily subsidised cost (the model uses commercial revenues from other activities to cover the cost of learning provision) the Heroes Centre aims to fire a passion for technology within every one of us, regardless of preferred or chosen career path.
The Heroes Centre offers an ambitious but realistic model for any town in the UK but we need help and support to deliver it. We are currently in the midst of plans to raise a challenging £2M to get the Centre up and running. If you believe you can help please get in touch.
We are at the start of the second industrial revolution but it’s not on land – it’s in the cloud. It is entirely fitting that the town that gave the world the Father of Television could spark a new digital transformation.
I only wish he could be here to witness it.
This opinion piece written by Phil Worms first appeared on the Drum Magazine’s web site on 14th February 2013