Ireland needs to switch on or be left behind in computer science
While we have computers in schools, and a proposed coding short course is a step in the right direction, we are way behind in computational thinking and there’s no clear national policy on computer science
‘If Ireland is to keep pace with its competitors, and avoid becoming a technological backwater, the Government needs to support the upskilling of teachers.’ Photograph: Peter MacDiarmid/Getty Images
Technology is changing at an ever-increasing pace and so is the nature of the work people do. Researchers at the University of Oxford recently analysed more than 700 different occupations to see how easily they could be automated. They concluded that 47 per cent of jobs are at high risk of being eliminated by computers over the next 20 years.
It’s not only manual jobs that are under threat but professional roles too, such as those of accountants, pilots, lawyers and doctors. In order to avoid a situation of growing unemployment, our education system must be sufficiently agile to allow today’s children to stay ahead of the machines. But our education system is failing to adjust to these changes: the same core subjects are being taught as were taught during the 20th century.
The labour market of the future will centre on individuals with high abstract reasoning and creative skills, carrying out the kind of tasks that are resistant to automation. This kind of activity, an aspect of computation that cannot be emulated by machine, is known as “computational thinking”.
Jeannette Wing, former professor of computer science at Carnegie Mellon and now corporate vice president of Microsoft Research, is an ardent proponent of computational thinking.
In her view, this form of cognition represents the literacy of the 21st century, a fundamental skill that will be needed by everyone to successfully engage with the modern world. Computational thinking builds on the power and limits of automated processes, directly confronting the question of how human creativity can be combined with the power of machines to solve problems across disciplines.
Lack of knowledge within schools
While the Irish Government has invested heavily in introducing technology into classrooms, there is a near total lack of knowledge within schools about computer science as a discipline.
Computer science is often conflated with topics from information and communications technology (ICT). What few people realise is that computer science has little to do with digital skills, technology or knowing how to use a computer. In fact, teaching computer science does not even require a computer (see CSunplugged.org for sample exercises). Children learn no more about computer science by using a computer than they learn about mathematics by using a calculator.
Learning to think computationally is like learning a foreign language: the younger you start, the better. As a result, parents are growing concerned by the lack of computer science exposure their children receive at school.
A recent survey revealed that a third of parents believe computer coding is a more essential skill to master than Irish, with two-thirds viewing it as being on a par with mathematics, science and languages.
One potential avenue for introducing computer science education to schools is the new junior cycle.
Starting on a phased basis this year, schools have the flexibility to decide what combination of subjects, short courses or other learning experiences will be provided in their three-year junior cycle programme. One of the sample short courses developed by the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA) is “coding”. However, the draft specification, which is no more than a skeleton, cannot by itself tackle the burning issue, namely the lack of expertise among teachers in the discipline. Teachers will struggle to re-invent novel Junior Cert subjects such as computer science in the absence of appropriate support, training and qualifications.
In 1995, Israel, propelled by a strategic desire to strengthen the country’s indigenous technological capability, established computer science as a school subject. A team of four computer science professors published a seminal article describing how to evolve the curriculum away from its misplaced focus on ICT towards the fundamental theory of computation. They identified strategies for resolving the problem of the subject’s low status, the lack of training of teachers and the lack of core principles in the existing curriculum.
The introduction of rigorous computer science as a school subject has since helped transform Israel into a “start-up nation”, challenging Silicon Valley as the world’s primary technology location. This small country of 8.1 million people now has more high-tech start-ups and attracts more than twice as much venture capital per person as any other country in the world.
In contrast to the proposed decentralised curriculum of the new junior cycle, the Israeli curriculum was meticulously engineered by a team of experts. A further key ingredient in the success of the Israeli model has been the focus on teacher experience. All computer science teachers in Israel must have an undergraduate degree in computer science, as well as official certification in teaching the subject.
The UK is the latest country to embrace the Israeli model. The teaching of ICT has been abandoned, and a strong theoretical curriculum has been developed in collaboration with the universities. Since September, students in England are studying computer science at both primary and secondary level. By the age of 11, children should already be fluent in two programming languages.
The British government is bridging the knowledge gap by recruiting and funding a network of 400 master computer science teachers to liaise with the universities, to teach teachers, to develop materials and to deliver the new curriculum to schools across the country. Without action here, there is a real risk of the State becoming an enclave of computer science illiteracy.
The Pact initiative
In order to enhance the profile of computational thinking in schools, we have developed the Pact initiative (Programming + algorithms => Computational Thinking) in the computer science department in Maynooth University.
This module provides a complete set of materials for teaching computer science. Teachers are invited to Maynooth for training, and they share the material they develop with other participating schools. What we have found so far is that there is significant demand from schools for teaching the subject, and much enthusiasm from students for developing this important skill.
While initiatives such as Pact, CoderDojo and the NCCA’s short course in coding are a step in the right direction, they are no substitute for a clear national policy on computer science education.
If Ireland is to keep pace with its competitors, and avoid becoming a technological backwater, the Government needs to follow the lead of the UK and support the upskilling of teachers, as well as promoting computer science as a fundamental and rigorous Stem subject all the way to Leaving Cert level.
Phil Maguire and James Power are co-ordinators of the computational thinking degree at Maynooth University. Schools that are interested in being involved with the Pact programme can email firstname.lastname@example.org
LESSONS: INSPIRED BY PACT
They’re the most connected generation in history, but, when it comes to computer programming, today’s teens have little formal training.
“Computer programming is a language, but we don’t recognise it is as important as any other language,” says Mary Selkirk, who teaches maths and science at Confey Community College in Leixlip, Co Kildare. Last year, working with transition year, Selkirk was one of the first teachers to pilot the Pact programme.
“Computer programming teaches hugely important problem-solving skills. If, for instance, the students want to sort names alphabetically, and come up with a programme to do that, they need to think about it. They have to investigate how their brain does it by looking at the processes in sorting the data. Once they can do this, they can programme a computer to do it. Most of these young people can get around a computer, but they are using pre-existing programmes which only do what the programme allows. That is very different from programming a computer to do what you want . In science, I require students to write up an experiment, but they’re not always great at explaining where they want to go and the steps to get there, or putting themselves in the shoes of the person they are explaining the experiment to. If they did computer programming, they would be better at detaching themselves from an experiment and describing it as it needs to be carried out.”
Selkirk is in a minority of teachers with programming skills. We have no dedicated computer science syllabus. Some students learn about programming through CoderDojo clubs, outside school.
A new short course in coding will be offered as part of the new junior cycle, but already some teachers are concerned about the absence of investment in equipment by the Department of Education.
“It is astonishing that computer science or computer studies is not already on the syllabus,” says Selkirk. “Programming should be introduced in first year, along with a broader computer syllabus that includes internet use and awareness and web design. Personal web pages are increasingly necessary for business, and students should have the skills to create and curate their own.”
This month, a proposal to include computer science in a new applied maths syllabus was criticised by maths teachers as “tokenistic” and retrograde.
“I hope students are taught programming at junior cycle and can use what they learn in applied maths,” says Selkirk. “I don’t think applied maths should be changed to teach programming; my desire is for students to learn programming separately; it is a whole subject in itself.”
Selkirk says students responded enthusiastically to the programme. “It’s a hugely important subject and it’s necessary to develop skills such as computational thinking,” she says. “These are problem-solvers who can think on their feet. It can be challenging, but programmers can’t give up and walk away – they become people who can persevere.” Peter McGuire
A small group of teachers took part in the first Pact sessions at Maynooth University, and others are now involved in its open-source learning platform. Pact plans an annual event to bring teachers together. maynoothuniversity.ie/computer-science