Monday, November 28, 2011

Educating an IT Workforce for the 21st Century

A report on the BBC Today programme this morning argues that the "Facebook generation needs better IT skills" and that UK schools should be providing courses in programming at GCSE. The report bemoaned the fact that so called Information and Communications Technologiy (ICT) GCSEs did little more than teach students how to use Office programmes such as Word and Excel and did not prepare students for a career in IT. The backers of this report were companies like Google and Microsoft.

This raises an interesting question of who should be funding such education in these austere times. Is it the role of schools to provide quite specific skills like programming or should they be providing the basics of literacy and numeracy as well as the more fundamental skills of creativity, communication and collaboration and leave the specifics to the industries that need them? Here are some of the issues related to this:
  1. Skills like computer programming are continuously evolving and changing. What is taught at 14 - 16 today (the age of GCSE students in the UK) will almost certainly be out of date when these students hit the work force at 21+.
  2. The computer industry, just like manufacturing before it, long ago sent out the message to students that programming skills (in Western economies at least) were commoditised and better performed by the low-cost economies of the BRIC nations (and now, presumably, the CEVITS).
  3. To most people computers are just tools. Like cars, washing machines and mobile phones they don't need to know how they work, just how to use them effectively.
  4. Why stop at computer programming GCSE? Why not teach the basics of plumbing, car mechanics, cookery and hairdressing, all of which are in great demand still and needed by their respective industries.
  5. Public education (which essentially did not exist before the 19th century, certainly not for the masses) came about to meet the needs of industrialism and as such demanded skills in left-brained, logical thinking skills rather than right brained, creative skills (see Sir Ken Robinson's TED talk on why schools kill creativity). As a result we have a system that rewards the former rather than the latter (as in "there's no point in studying painting or music, you'll never get a job in that"). 
In an ideal world we would all be given the opportunities to learn and apply whatever skills we wanted (both at school and throughout life) and have that learning funded by the tax payer on the basis it benefits society as a whole. Unfortunately we don't live in that ideal world and in fact are probably moving further from it than ever.

Back in the real world therefore industry must surely fund the acquiring of those skills. Unfortunately in many companies education is the first thing to be cut when times are hard. The opposite should be the case. One of the best things I ever did was to spend five weeks (yes that's weeks not days), funded entirely by IBM, learning object-oriented programming and design. Whilst five weeks may seem like a long time for a course I know this has paid for itself many, many times over by the work I have been able to do for IBM in the 15 years since attending that course. Further, I suspect that five weeks intensive learning was easily equivalent to at least a years worth of learning in an educational establishment.
 
Of course such skills are more vital to companies like Google, Microsoft and IBM than ever before. Steve Denning in an article called Why Big Companies Die in Forbes this month quotes from an article by Peggy Noonan in the Wall Street Journal (called A Caveman Won't Beat a Salesman). Denning uses a theory from Steve Jobs that big companies fail when salesmen and accountants are put in charge of and who don't know anything about the product or service the company make or how it works. Denning says:

"The activities of these people [salesmen and accountants] further dispirit the creators, the product engineers and designers, and also crimp the firm’s ability to add value to its customers. But because the accountants appear to be adding to the firm’s short-term profitability, as a class they are also celebrated and well-rewarded, even as their activities systematically kill the firm’s future".

Steve Jobs showed that there was another way.  Namely, to keep playing the offense and focus totally on adding value for customers by creating new and innovative new products. By doing that you can make more money than the companies that are milking their cash cows and focused on making money rather than products.

Companies like Google and Microsoft (and IBM and Apple) need people fully trained in the three C's (creativity, communication and creativity) who can then apply these to whatever task is most relevant to the conmpanies bottom line. It's the role of those companies, not government, to train people in the specifics.

Interestingly Seymour Papert (who co-invented the Logo programming language) used programming as a tool to improve the way that children think and solve problems. Papert used Piaget's work of cognitive development (that showed how children learn) and used Logo as a way of improving their creativity.

Finally, to see how students themselves view all this see the article by Nikhil Goyal's (a 16-year-old junior at Syosset High School in New York) who states: "for the 21st century American economy, all economic value will derive from entrepreneurship and innovation. Low-cost manufacturing will essentially be wiped out of this country and shipped to China, India, and other nations" and goes on to propose that 
"we institute a 21st century model of education, rooted in 21st century learning skills and creativity, imagination, discovery, and project-based learning". Powerful stuff for one so young, there may yet be hope for us.

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