Protecting the future of ICT – is Ireland being left behind? - With the UK stealing a march by recently introducing computer science into primary schools, Diarmuid O’Briain writes that Ireland must grow the critical ICT sector by also incorporating computer science as a core subject
Author: Diarmuid O’Briain CEng FIEI FIET, chief technical officer, Ripple Communications Limited/Computing Division, Engineers Ireland
It is estimated that the digital economy is worth €7.7 billion or 4.8% of gross domestic product (GDP) and this is growing. Additionally, there are 50,000 jobs directly attributed to sectors and activities which produce the goods facilitated by the internet and associated services (Indecon, 2012). The Industrial Development Authority (IDA) supports over 200 information and communications technology (ICT) companies in Ireland directly employing approximately 36,000 people – this represents 22% of total exports, estimated at €35 billion.
All of this demonstrates that the ICT and internet sector is an essential and growing part of our economy. Our nearest neighbour in the UK, however, has the largest internet economy in the world at 8.3% of GDP in 2010 and estimates that it will have grown to 12.4% by 2016. Online retail in the UK will represent 23% of all retail by 2016 (BCG, 2010).
The UK has stolen a march on Ireland with the recent introduction of computer science as a compulsory subject from age five. Computer Science: A Curriculum for Schools (CSWG, 2012) is aimed at both primary and secondary-school level, with a focus on computing from a coding perspective. This replaces the old subject of ICT, which focused on computer literacy training, i.e. the teaching of word-processing and spreadsheets. These activities are, in computing terms, the equivalent of learning to read and write. This new curriculum is designed to demonstrate to all children to the full breadth of computer science.
“ICT used to focus purely on computer literacy – teaching pupils, over and over again, how to word process, work a spreadsheet, use programs already creaking into obsolescence; about as much use as teaching children to send a telex or travel in a Zeppelin. Our new curriculum teaches children computer science, information technology and digital literacy: teaching them how to code and create their own programs; not just how to work a computer, but how a computer works and how to make it work for you.” (Gove M., 2014)
So a student in primary school in the UK will have learnt in stage 1 (ages 5 – 7) to create and debug simple programs as well as the safe and ethical use of computers. They will have been introduced to algorithms, will learn that programs are precise and unambiguous sets of instructions and how these programs are implemented on digital devices. At stage 2 (ages 7 – 11), the student will learn how to design and write programs. These programs will control physical systems. The student will also learn about computer networks and develop skills to debug programs using logical reasoning.
In secondary school, the student will move to stage 3 (ages 11 – 14) where they will learn about Boolean logic, understand algorithms and conditionals and how they reflect computational thinking. At this stage, they also learn about hardware and software components and how they interact with each-other as well as with other systems.
At the final secondary stage 4 (ages 14-16,) the student is given the option to achieve a national qualification with General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE) in Computing and Computer Science. This offers clear benchmarks and a basis upon which third-level institutions can develop the student who wishes to pursue a professional career in computing.
Imagine a situation where a student arrives into the Irish education system late and is exempted the requirement to learn Irish at both primary and secondary school. At 18, this student then achieves the required CAO (Central Applications Office) points to undergo a Bachelor of Arts (Gaeilge). This situation would make life extremely difficult for both student and lecturer.
Yet it is this sort of scenario that Irish third-level institutes are asked to contend with when it comes to teaching computing. A student who achieves the requisite number of CAO points will secure a place on a computing course, despite being practically illiterate from a computing perspective. In other disciplines, students will have had a head-start of between six and 11 years at primary and/or secondary education.
The 1980s was a pioneering age for computing and computer science. Personal computers from companies like Sinclair, Commodore, Atari and Acorn allowed children and adults alike to access hardware. The nature of those early personal computers required the owner to learn the Beginner’s All-purpose Symbolic Instruction Code (BASIC) programming language. Computer magazines provided the code for programs and they had to be typed and debugged by the user.
The Leaving Certificate had an additional award called Ríomhstaidéir (Computer Studies) as part of the Mathematics course for those who submitted a portfolio of programs they had written in BASIC and other programming languages. Therefore, many students applying for computing courses at third level, were experienced hobbyist programmers from secondary school.
The advent of the Operating System (OS) and particularly Microsoft – Disk Operating System (MS-DOS) for the 8086-family computer began the era of application software. Since then, users have not had to write or debug programs. In general, users have not had access to the source code of the program as it has been delivered in a compiled form by the company who created it. So, the most that can be expected from the newer generations of Irish secondary student before entering third-level computing courses is some skills in web-page development.
In 2006 Eben Upton, Rob Mullins, Jack Lang and Alan Mycroft at the Computer Laboratory, University of Cambridge came up with the idea of a tiny and affordable computer for children to allow them learn. Their idea was formed as a potential solution to the problem of declining numbers of high-quality students applying for computer-science courses in third-level institutes in the UK. They developed a low cost (~ €35), credit-card sized computer. This can be plugged into a television or computer monitor and with a keyboard and mouse gives the child a platform from which they can explore computing in a manner similar to the pioneers of the 1980s.
The Raspberry Pi can be used to learn programming. Using an array of add-on electronics the child can learn to develop and use programs and to control the environment connected to the device directly, via bluetooth or over IP networks. The device can also be used to do what a regular computer can do like word processing, spreadsheets, presentations, games and much more.
The Raspberry Pi is managed by a UK-registered charity foundation with the goal of advancing the education of adults and children in the field of computers, computer science and related subjects. With the success of the low cost, small board Raspberry Pi there have been a number of follower options like the Intel MinnowBoard Max, HummingBoard, BeagleBone, UDOO and Banana Pi. The Raspberry Pi itself has sold well over 2,000,000 units to date, such is its popularity. It enables the user to find the fun in the exploration of computer science once again.
By introducing Computer Science: A Curriculum for Schools, the UK is showing leadership in the ICT and Internet sectors. It is positioning itself to grow this sector of their economy over the years. The higher calibre of student entering third-level computing courses over the coming years will drive the UK’s digital economy even further forward.
In Ireland, digital education at primary and secondary level is currently at a very low, almost non-existent level. The Draft Specification for Junior Cycle Short Course in Programming and Coding is a small step in the right direction, but only caters for a small number of students for too short a period. It is a very small step by comparison to the UK model.
As young people currently studying computer science in primary and secondary schools in the UK today begin attending third-level institutions and entering the workforce, a widening gap in the skill-sets of the two workforces will emerge. Ireland needs to address this disparity in order to maintain and grow this critical sector of the economy by incorporating computer science as a core subject within the curriculum at both primary and secondary level.
This article was first published in Engineers Journal