Steve Furber: why kids are turned off computing

5 Aug 2010
students

Computing legend believes computing classes need to be more interesting to draw students

One of the UK's tech leaders believes students are staying away from computing classes because they teach nothing but the boring basics.

Professor Steve Furber - the legendary Acorn and ARM processor designer - is working with the Royal Society to figure out why the number of students taking A-Level computing classes has halved in the past eight years, and why students who love technology aren't signing up to study the subject.

We speak to one of the original Micro Men to find out why he thinks teaching spreadsheets in computing classes is about as exciting as learning spelling in A-Level English classes.

Q. Why is the Royal Society looking into this problem?

A. The impetus for the study came from a number of sources. The universities have been detecting the falling number in students directly in the form of applications for admissions, which have dropped dramatically since the turn of the century.

We found employers groups were concerned about this as well... Everybody had the same message, that something was happening with the way ICT and computing was presented at schools that was turning the kids off.

This seemed very unfortunate, not only because those of us involved in the subject can’t see how you could possibly be turned off something so fascinating, but also because the use of computers right across business, commerce, education, government is going up, not down, so the national requirement is for people with more computing skills, not fewer.

Q. How could a lack of skilled IT workers affect the UK as a whole?

A. The obvious impact on the econmy is if industry can’t recruit people with the appropriate knowledge here, industry is global, it will simply move activities overseas.

We hear a great deal about offshoring activities such as software, but what’s very unclear is which is the cart and which is the horse. Are companies offshoring because it’s cheaper and therefore we’re losing jobs here, or are they offshoring because they simply can’t recruit here so they’ve got to find the resource somewhere else?

Q. Why aren’t students taking computing or IT courses when they’re already using tech so much in their personal lives?

The goal of the study is to understand these issues much better than certainly I do at the moment, but the impression we get is that the schools’ curriculum has very much focused on ICT skills, and so what everybody does in school is learn to use a spreadsheet and word processor and PowerPoint and so on.

It’s as if maths was just arithmetic or English was taught as just spelling

These are important skills but, of course, what is taught at school is at a fairly basic level, and those who already have an interest in computing are already way ahead of that in what they’ve done at home. What schools are presenting as ICT as an academic subject is very mundane compared with what students know they can do.

It’s as if maths was just arithmetic or English was taught as just spelling. It’s not unimportant that you can do arithmetic or you can spell, but it certainly doesn’t open up the whole world of interest and challenge, if that’s all you do.

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