Face it: tech will always be a little geeky


NET RESULTS:ALONG WITH noting its serious implications, the Higher Education Authority got a bit of a laugh last week when it released a new survey on the challenges to getting more secondary students into technology careers, writes KARLIN LILLINGTON

The HEA’s press release quoted Pat O’Connor, head of computing skills at the HEA: “Comic Book Guy (from The Simpsons) does not represent the typical student or worker in computing and technology in Ireland but it is the stereotype that most students imagine when asked about the sort of people who are employed in the sector.”

We need to get rid of that stereotype or students will reject tech careers, said O’Connor. Who could resist the opportunity to inject more Simpsonsinto our lives? RTÉ news ran with the comparison, and played a snippet of Comic Book Guy to cue up an interview with O’Connor.

I think the HEA draws some wrong conclusions from the study. And such statements are insulting to the many smart kids in schools who generally all get identified as geeks and nerds – sometimes, quite happily.

So now we are supposed to downplay the, uh, inherent geekiness of technology just to make some teenagers consider a career choice that will, after all, require them to work daily with computers, networks and code? The larger issue is that geeks and other smart kids in school spend most of their secondary school lives being pressured to hide the fact that they are smart – especially girls, also under-represented in technology careers.

Try as the HEA might, it is never going to be able to remake a computer science degree and tech career into a Ross O’Carroll Kelly lifestyle choice. Nor should it have to. A 16-year-old is a 16-year-old, secondary school is secondary school, and, at that age, kids think in stereotypes; fighting them is very difficult. Smart kids generally get a hard time and get called geeks. People get a bit more mature, and they forget the stereotypes.

Consider the evidence: in the survey, their parents almost universally had a positive view of people working in ICT and associated such jobs with neither Comic Book Guy or a negative “geek” image. I am about the same generation as those parents, and they sure as heck thought in terms of geeks and nerds when they were 16.

You can try to highlight the sexier areas of tech, such as gaming or special effects (as the report suggests). But guess what? If you are going to design computer games, you still need maths and the ability to code and to use a computer. Geek stuff. Fun geek stuff.

So forget the image makeover, and don’t insult smart kids and geeks by implying they have to have their areas of interest de-teched to make them more warm and fuzzy for the masses. Tech is never, ever going to be seen as non-geeky. But “geeky” can be shown to be pretty darn cool. (And actually, secondary students used as many positive or neutral terms as negatives in describing how they see people who work in tech: “youngish”, “look smart”, “businessy”, “successful”, “logical”, “brainy”, “smart”, “hardworking”.)

Instead, focus on the points contained in the bulk of this important HEA report, which suggest that the real issue is that children have few productive and exciting encounters with computers and technology, or tech job or role models when at school. Some report findings are:

  • “The limited exposure to technology in schools means that children find it difficult to find a role for technology within the educational environment . . . technology subjects in school are often not taken particularly seriously, particularly as it is not an exam-based subject.”
  • “The understanding of the term ‘computing and technology’ among secondary students was very narrow, and almost universally limited to the practical aspect of computers, with no students interpreting this term to encompass broader aspects of technology.”
  • “Male students perceive jobs in this area to be monotonous – eg sitting at a desk all day – highly pressured, confusing and most likely working for a multinational company . . . female students perceive a job in computing and technology to be deskbound, boring, complicated, stressful and challenging . . . There is a low level of awareness among both secondary male and female students, regarding the different types of engineering courses and jobs.”
  • “Most male students had heard of engineering but mainly associated it with civil engineering . . . some male students had heard of electronic engineering but, beyond that, they had little knowledge of what it entailed. Similarly, female students had little knowledge of the different types engineering jobs . . . they did not associate engineering with software or electronic engineering, but more with building bridges and roads.”

Well, no wonder students do not feel they can identify with jobs or people in technology. They have no idea what this vast and varied sector is about. The industry and the field does not need to be dumbed down and stripped of its celebrated geek image (which doesn’t seem to bother Indian or Chinese students and clearly is culturally based and pretty immovable).

Instead, students need early, regular, productive and rewarding contact with computers and technology, early career guidance and contact with real people in technology-based careers, and incentives – such as double points for Higher Level maths – to make pursuing challenging preparatory subjects less risky and more appealing.

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