Inspiring the next generation of computer scientists

By Computing Staff
20 Nov 2013 View Comments

If you were to ask a group of teenagers about what they consider the ‘coolest' trend of the moment, it is a fair bet that Grand Theft Auto will feature somewhere near the top of the list. But if you were to ask them what their favourite subjects are, I would hazard a guess that ICT and computer science would land somewhere at the bottom.

There is a clear disconnect between the perceptions of IT products and IT skills among young people today. While the likes of Facebook's Mark Zuckerburg and YouTube's Steve Chen have invented products in the IT space that no self-respecting teenager would live without, we are not seeing enough youngsters taking up ICT at school.

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In addition to many children to missing out on rewarding careers in a dynamic subject, this trend also exacerbates the well-documented ICT skills gap and will represent a real problem for businesses, governments and societies if not addressed.

Bringing IT education into the 21st Century

So what is causing this disconnect? Part of the problem lies with the ICT curriculum that many European countries currently have in place. Often these fail to keep pace with the latest technological innovations and the evolving skill-set today's ‘digitally native' youth. So while some youngsters may spend their time at home writing complex lines of code on Java, at school only the basics (such as word processing and office tools) are being taught. Naturally this leaves students uninspired and with little desire to explore the subject beyond the classroom.

Another issue is that not enough is done to show students how varied and lucrative a career in IT can be. There is a perception that with a qualification in ICT young people will exclusively finds jobs at an IT company or doing rather unglamorous back-office or support work - often in a male-dominated working environment.

Teachers, governments and businesses must work to disprove this perception. With the right computer science skills young people can find work in any industry, in any sector and in any position. All businesses today, and in the future, will rely to some extent on IT - for most technology is at the core of whatever they do - whether they operate in retail, manufacturing, financial services, the arts, or virtually any other discipline.

ICT vs. Computer Science

In large part, reform will come down to changing the way computing skills are taught in schools. Across EMEA governments are actively looking to update the ICT curriculum they currently have in place to be fit for the modern age. Once we move away from teaching children how to use basic desktop applications and hardware and towards more involved concepts such as programming or networking, we will be on the right track.

At present, however, this simply is not happening. To give an example, one of the UK universities we work with told us that at least 30 per cent of its computer science students arrive at Freshers' Week (student orientation) with little or no understanding of what they are about to study.

Clearly schools need to do more to ready young people for their futures. We need to stop teaching ICT in the traditional sense, and instead teach computer science, focusing on vital programming languages such as Java, cloud computing skills and big data analytics - these are the skills that will be in most demand in the coming decades and that will offer young people the best career opportunities.

We also need to make it clear to young people that the subject of computer science encompasses the digital world to which they no-doubt subscribe to and use daily. This again boils down to a problem of perception - if students only knew that computer science lies at the heart of Facebook, Twitter, computer games, Instagram, and the web, amongst countless other things of interest to them, they would more readily embrace it as a subject.

Our job as an industry leader is to help teachers impart generic, globally transferable skillsets to their students, ones that will be of relevance to a broad spectrum of careers. How we do this will vary greatly from country to country, but in all cases must be centred on imparting the right skills and a modern appreciation of computer science.

Jane Richardson is director of the Oracle Academy in EMEA

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