Monday, 10 October 2011

Computers, Skills and ICT: What do we know?

I am going to hear David Willetts here at Imperial tonight, in the first of the Tech City debates.  The question on the card:

"On Monday 10 October, The Guardian's Tech Weekly will host the first of its series of Tech City Talks, tackling the biggest issues in the UK's future digital economy. First under the microscope: the state of our digital skills... Panelists include: David Willetts MP (Minister of State for Universities and Science), Professor Jeff Magee (Principal of the Faculty of Engineering at Imperial College London) and Dan Crow (Chief Technology Office at Songkick). Join Tech Weekly for the live recording of this debate at 6.30pm on Monday 10 October at Imperial College London, South Kensington Campus, Exhibition Road, London SW7 2AZ."

So what do i know about digital skills?   With the help of this reading list,, here are a few thoughts.

1. it would seem the schools teaching of ICT is woeful. In particular, kids don't do computer science or programming, but learn how to log on, use a search engine etc. Here's the British Computing Society, Computing at School Group on ICT at schools.   
1. At each stage teaching makes the assumption of no prior knowledge, students end up being taught the same material many times – at primary, KS3, GCSE and GCE levels.
2. Many students may already know much of the material, such as the use of search engines or a word processor from their home environment or general knowledge, often better than their teacher.

the numbers doing ICT have dropped too, which seems odd:

2. the curriculum has now been reformed,  boosting programming instead of literacy.

Two more things.

1. This is all action in schools.  Very welcome.  but the government has a woeful record of post school training, with most low vocational courses having zero rates of return.  So that might have to be left to the private sector.
2. The brilliant Shane Greenstein looks at those able to benefit from the internet.  You'd think that the internet brings opportunities to both New York and Iowa to shop, set up as EBay traders etc. So in what region to wages rise after the advent of the internet?  Answer: only in New York and not in Iowa. Or more generally, only in those regions where there already were many educated people, denser populations and more IT industry.  Note they don't look at IT education, just general levels, so the result does not necessarily need more IT educated.  And also remote, low density areas don't seem to benefit at all, a blow for those who think that IT will help rural area wages at least.

It was a very good meeting which the Guardian will make available on podcast.  David Willetts said something that was, to me, very insightful.  It was observed that we don't have a Silicon Valley in the UK because here people don't want to take risks, perhaps due to culture.  He observed that attitude to risk is context dependent, and that the key point of a cluster is it is a safe environment in which to undertake high-risk activities.  Two points occur to me:

a. I wonder if we might have less clusters in the UK than otherwise if high rents, due to planning, stifle geographic clusters forming.
b.  I had thought of clusters as knowledge sharing devices.  Maybe they are, but maybe they are also insurance-providing via being thick labour markets to use in the event of failure. Not sure how one would distinguish between these two views however.

Another update.
A late panelist was Emma Mulqueeny who was fantastic.  @hubmum.  Here is a subsquent tweet on coding for nine year olds:

For those at re resources I use to teach Amy (9) coding: & &