A love of Snapchat and Twitter does not make children digital natives

Opinion: Young people who might be interested in a computing career need exposure in school to coding and other essential skills

Photograph: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

Photograph: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg


We are at the beginning of a new technology-driven revolution. Multinationals are hiring, start-ups are scouting for talent and traditional industries are recruiting. Over the next three years, Ireland will need almost 45,000 additional computing professionals.

Is our education system ready for this? We have managed to increase the number of students completing third-level computing courses in recent years. But alarming numbers are dropping out before they finish the end of their first year.

What are we doing wrong? Maybe our efforts to attract students to information and computing technology courses are drawing in the wrong students? Without any formal exposure to ICT in secondary school, students’ understanding of technology is as consumers, not creators or developers.

Students love their technology and are very confident around it. But for most it is like magic: they know little about the underlying code that makes their charmed devices tick. So when we dangle courses and careers in technology in front of students, many bite and enrol in programmes that disappoint them.

Mostly girls do not bite at all, perhaps unaware that computing means more than coding and that communication, creativity and design are equally important elements of the discipline.

These students miss the comfortable environment of the familiar such as Facebook, Snapchat and Twitter. The demands hit home with the realisation that all things worthwhile require moving out of a comfort zone and embracing new challenges.

A clear picture

A student considering one of the other professions. Students who opt for nursing have a fair idea of what they will study in college. Likewise for law, architecture, accounting.

Why can’t we give students a flavour of what a college course and career in technology might be like so that the right ones fill all those extra third-level places the Government is pledging in order to meet our significant need for computing professionals?

Today’s youth are often hailed as “digital natives”, suggesting that they can instinctively master all digital technologies and devices. And, yes, using Facebook, Snapchat, Twitter and gaming, and voraciously consuming online content, are digital lifestyle skills that seem to come easier to young people.

But can we really say that young people inherently possess the digital workplace skills needed to realise their full potential as learners, employees, entrepreneurs and active citizens?

Hardly. The European Commission forecasts that 90 per cent of jobs will require at least basic digital skills by 2020. But this fallacy of the digital native means that essential skills such as problem- solving, collaboration and critical thinking – skills required of every young person regardless of career or life path – are not offered by schools.

These are essential life skills, akin to reading and writing. But equally critical are computing skills, computational thinking, coding, data analysis, cloud computing and so on. These are skills that must be experienced by students in school.

Don’t blame schools and teachers, constrained by curriculum, exams and a slow reform cycle. Rather we should encourage, celebrate and reward the champion teachers in primary and secondary schools who embrace technology and provide their students with an innovative style of education.

The Irish Computer Society, the representative body for IT professionals, acknowledges the curriculum overload and the burden that is placed on schools to solve every social problem.

The society has created an integrated syllabus for primary schools that enables teachers to teach the fundamentals of ICT, coding, media, communications and user skills as part of the prescribed curriculum. This programme, known as Cliste, provides a scheme of work, ready-to-go lesson plans and copious resources for teachers to make implementation easy.

Likewise, at second level the society’s computing curriculum provides Junior Cert short-course content with teacher guidelines and student workbooks in computational thinking, digital media and micro-controllers.

These initiatives can bring about change in an informal way, by supporting teachers who drive reform and innovation.

Teachers’ professional development needs must also be addressed. Professional bodies, nongovernmental organisations and industry can play a supporting role in this.

Should computing be a Leaving Cert subject? Perhaps, but I advise caution before adding such a crucial area to a system that is under review. Technology is so fast-changing that it could suffer from being appended to an examination system that doesn’t evolve quickly.

A better approach might be to give space to and to capitalise on initiatives to promote technology in school-based projects. Science Foundation Ireland, the Irish Computer Society and Engineers Ireland all engage thousands of students every year in projects such as the BT Young Scientist, Tech Week and the Formula 1 in Schools Technology Challenge.

  • Mary Cleary is deputy chief executive officer of the Irish Computer Society
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