22 Nov 2017

Is Scotland Facing a Computing Studies Crisis?

Source: DIGIT LEADERS

In September DIGIT reported on calls from academics at the University of Glasgow’s Centre for Computing Science Education for children as young as five to be taught basic computer skills.

According to The Herald, the introductory courses could help address the 10,000-strong vacancy gap which goes unfilled in Scottish IT roles every year.

But a UK-wide report published by The Royal Society has cast doubts on whether such strategies for improving Scotland’s digital tech scene can be implemented at all. One shocking statistic highlighted by the research paper claims that Scotland has borne a 25% decrease in the number of computing teachers since 2005.

The report raises a difficult question: is Scotland facing a computing and computer science crisis?

DIGIT reached out to Graeme Gordon, Chairman of ScotlandIS, and Polly Purvis, the organisation’s Chief Executive, to find out more about the educational challenges facing Scotland’s computing sector.

 

graeme gordon polly purvis

Teaching shortages

The Royal Society’s report, titled After the Reboot: Computing Education in UK Schools, shows that 17% (roughly 425 of Scotland’s 2,500 schools) do not have the teaching staff required to deliver the learning outcomes of the computing courses on offer.

Graeme told DIGIT: “We have a teaching shortage, and when you get into the more specialised areas obviously that becomes more acute. Certainly in the more modern teaching subjects – and computing is a modern teaching subject – there’s obviously a smaller pool.

“What we don’t want is a nation of coders, just as we don’t want a nation of doctors, lawyers, truck drivers. What we want is that mixed working environment, that mixed economy that we all live in. Should we be showing our kids at school how to use the technology that is there every day better, more safely? Of-course we should, in the same ways we do with every other skill.”

“We should have the opportunity to teach more kids and young people at school about computer sciences as a career path, whether that’s software, sensors, computers themselves, VR headsets, or drones – all these things fit into more advanced computer science skills. It’s not just about coding, it’s much more about the digital environment that people are living in,”

graeme gordon polly purvis

Polly explained that initiatives are having an effect on Scotland’s declining teaching pool, but keeping the nation’s head above water is proving difficult. She said: “This [shortage] is recognised by Education Scotland and the Scottish Government. The ICT & Digital Technologies Skills Investment Plan work is already underway, supporting existing computing teachers to keep their professional knowledge and skills right up to date, and to bring new teachers into schools through greater numbers of specialist teacher training places.

“However this is not an easy challenge and we are continuing to lose computing teachers faster than we can recruit and train new ones.”

 

Pupil participation

Even worse, according to the Royal Society the dwindling number of teachers in the talent pool are outpaced by a decline in overall pupil enrolment in computing courses, dropping 11% since 2005. This decrease means that the declining supply cannot keep up with the declining demand. The Royal Society’s report details that in females Advanced Higher-level uptake of computing studies is currently no more than 14%.

Furthermore, The Royal Society reports that the number of first-year students on computing initial teacher training courses has dropped by 80% over the last nine years. As a result, some universities have been forced to drop their PGCE in computer science, which could lead to a perpetuation of the student-teacher decline.

With student-teacher declines in mind, Polly hypothesised what a general lack of participation could lead to: “As the whole world goes digital it is essential that Scotland develops the technology products and services of the future. Our economic prosperity will depend on making sure all our young people can be skilled contributors to the technology workforce.

“If we don’t address the issue we will fall behind, as other countries are prioritising the teaching of computer science in schools.”

Graeme contests that technological innovation has long been a part of Scottish history, and there is no reason why this should not be enhanced in the digital age. Graeme said: “I think that Scotland has been an engineering society forever. We’ve been caught up now by the rest of the world, but that doesn’t mean that we’ve gotten any worse at it.

“I still think we produce some of the best engineering, whether that’s software, hardware, electrical or space-tech – there’s no doubt about that. But we need to increase the volume of people coming through our system. We’ve got great quality there – [and] it could be better, it could be more industry relevant – but we need to increase the volume of it so we can capitalise on the reality: that Scotland is a great place to be educated. Let’s take that forward into a digital age and continue that theme through.”

Despite Scotland’s rich heritage in technology, and the ubiquitous nature of digital tech, the numbers have caused The Royal Society to brand computer science in Scotland as a ‘long established discrete’ subject.

 

Fighting back

But aspects of Scotland’s rich technological heritage do endure in programmes today which are encouraging more Scottish people into tech. The Digital Xtra fund, for example, raises and distributes funds to organisations engaged in advancing technology, digital and computer science education across Scotland. These projects include the Rampaging Chariots Guild – an introductory robotics module already active in over 250 Scottish schools. Other initiatives include Apps for Good, which teaches 10-16-year-olds to design, market and build apps for causes that they care about in their local communities. More recently, the fund is releasing a pot of £50,000 to 11 tech-programmes.

Initiatives such as Digital Xtra aren’t only available to younger audiences, as both Graeme and Polly pointed out. CodeClan, the first UK digital skills academy to be recognised by the SQA, offers 16-week coding courses to adults as well as students. Perhaps surprisingly, the average age of a CodeClan cohort is 32 years-old.

Polly also noted a number of tech initiatives aimed towards redressing gender-imbalances in Scotland’s digital landscape. Organisations such as SmartStems specifically focus on encouraging more young women into tech, through its offering of Hub and Outreach programmes which look at areas such as VR, programming and engineering.

Despite these promising signs, Polly reminded DIGIT: “All these groups and the Digital Xtra Fund are all under-resourced, so we are in effect only creating a sticking plaster for the underlying issue.”

Graeme suggested that by utilising the gig-economy model in digital education, teacher shortages could be addressed in a more substantive. Graeme said: “You could use the gig economy model where you’ve got coders who may be lending time to code clubs and so on. [They] could come in and support the learning environment by saying, ‘Look, this could be a career choice for you,’ and not just using Word and Excel and so on.

“We should be opening more people’s eyes to the opportunities that computing, computing software, software engineering, data analytics and data science offer. We have a missed opportunity there.”

 

Industry Evangelists

Beyond a paucity of teachers, Graeme also pointed towards a lack of active engagement from professionals within the digital industries as both a problem and an opportunity: “I think one of the biggest things when it comes to education is [that] parents tend to devolve education to schools and universities.

“Because we’re in the digital space, I think as parents, aunts, uncles, cousins and friends, you owe it to pay that back. We as people who are out there and doing this owe it to speak to our nieces, nephews, cousins, sons, daughters, brothers: ‘Hey this is what a career in digital looks like. This is what you could be doing. This is what I do.’ And we’re not doing that enough, and that’s because it’s sometimes difficult to do so, but it’s also because sometimes we’re reluctant to do so. We should be telling people about, ‘How great my job is’.”

Graeme concluded: “You’re never too young to start exercising, and the benefits in later life you never realise when you’re 16– it’s how we introduce that blended environment for using technology as an enabler, not as a novelty.”

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16 Nov 2017

Digital Xtra Fund continues to inspire Scotland’s future digital makers

Formula 1, 3D printed drones, lighthouses, and coding for social good are just some of the latest activities to receive support from Digital Xtra Fund, a charity dedicated to inspiring Scotland’s future digital workforce through high-quality extracurricular digital activities.

From Orkney to Dumfries & Galloway, a sum of £50,000 has been shared between 11 sustainable initiatives to introduce over 3,000 young people to digital technologies, and show them the range of career opportunities these skills will provide. Five awardees are new initiatives which demonstrated a creative and fun way to engage young people, with the remaining six projects set to build on activities previously supported by Digital Xtra Fund.

The aim of Digital Xtra Fund is for every young person in Scotland to have access to a digitally creative activity regardless of their gender, background, or where they live. The Fund is particularly keen to engage audiences underrepresented in the digital technologies industry, especially girls and young women, and looked to support initiatives that showed a healthy gender split and were delivered in areas often excluded from extracurricular digital activities through lack of local resources or facilities.

Kraig Brown, Partnership and Development Manager for Digital Xtra Fund, said: “The digital skills gap is well documented, and we believe the best way to tackle this gap is to engage young people through extracurricular activities, where they can be themselves in an informal and creative setting. Initiatives supported by the Fund will inspire them to be more than just digital consumers; they can be digital makers too.

“It’s been incredibly inspiring to see the quality and diversity of activities that organisations across the country have come up with. They are fun, engaging, and with the help of Digital Xtra Fund, they are more widely available than ever before. This is very encouraging for the future of digital technologies in Scotland.”

Minister for Further Education, Higher Education and Science, Shirley-Anne Somerville said: “It is great to see the Digital Xtra Fund supporting deserving extracurricular digital skills projects across Scotland, benefiting over 3000 young people. The Scottish Government recently launched its STEM strategy, which aims to inspire and enthuse everyone to study STEM and build STEM skills. Charities such as the Digital Xtra Fund, who are enabling inspiring digital and STEM projects to flourish and encourage more young people into the sector, are making a significant contribution to this important agenda.

Damien Yeates, Chief Executive of Skills Development Scotland said: “We are delighted to the see Digital Xtra Fund going from strength to strength and supporting projects which are addressing the gender imbalance and encouraging more girls into tech. The digital technology sector in Scotland is booming and the Fund is now well established to work with Scottish employers to collectively support extracurricular digital activities for young people. This is a great way to encourage the next generation of digital makers into the tech sector.”

Now an independent charity, Digital Xtra Fund is seeking further support to give every young person in Scotland opportunity to get involved in extracurricular digital activities. Actively working with Scotland’s industries, Digital Xtra Fund is currently raising funds for its 2018 grant awards. Companies interested in supporting young people to gain the digital skills for the future should contact the Fund.

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02 Nov 2017

Edge Testing completes 500 mile charity walk for 10th anniversary

Edge Testing Solutions, one of the UK’s fastest growing and largest independent software testing companies, has completed a £5,000 fundraising initiative in support of 10 chosen charities, including Digital Xtra Fund.

10 volunteers across Edge’s offices walked 500 miles from the company’s Glasgow office, via its new Digital Test Hub in Birmingham, to its London premises on a treadmill.  Edge donated £10 for every 10 miles walked with the proceeds split between the 10 charities. Charity representatives were invited to the company’s 10th anniversary celebrations to receive their cheques from CEO Brian Ferrie.

Digital Xtra Fund was hugely honoured to be one of the 10 chosen alongside other nominated charities: St Andrew’s Hospice (where Susan Chadwick, joint founder of Edge, spent her final days); Glasgow Children’s Hospital Charity; Brick by Brick; Little Stars; Acorns Children’s Hospice Trust, Birmingham; British Heart Foundation; Cancer Research UK; NSPCC; and MacMillan.

Fiona Atherton, Head of Marketing at Edge, said: “We got everyone at Edge involved by asking them to nominate a charity which was close to their hearts; the stories inspired us all and gave us the motivation we needed to complete the 500-mile journey.”

The walkers from Edge were CEO and Founder Brian Ferrie, Nadia McKay, Sharon Hamilton, Fiona Atherton, Liam Rankine, Gary Robertson, Michael Burt, Jennifer McManus, Claire Ferguson and Kimberley Crielly. In addition to the 500 mile walk, Edge employees have also been participating in other fundraising activities in support of the 10 charities, including a raffle at their 10th anniversary event, which the charities were invited to attend.

Kraig Brown, Partnership and Development Manager for Digital Xtra Fund, said: “Thank you very much to everyone at Edge Testing for their contribution, especially the 10 volunteers who participated in the 500 mile walk from Glasgow to London. We were delighted when Fiona told us we were going to be included in this terrific initiative, especially alongside fantastic and long-standing charities like MacMillan and British Heart Foundation.

Edge Testing’s donation is very much appreciated  and will help ensure that Digital Xtra Fund, along with the activity providers we support, continues to support young people across Scotland in learning the technology skills needed to succeed regardless of gender, background, or location. And who knows, some of these young people may work for Edge Testing in a few years!”

Brian Ferrie, CEO and Founder of Edge, concluded: “We wanted to mark our 10th anniversary as a growing testing company by adding another dimension to our fundraising efforts, while also celebrating our expansion into England; that’s why walking 500 miles seemed so appropriate.”

Edge is a leading expert in providing world-class software testing solutions. The award winning company is typically engaged when organisations are implementing a new system or making significant changes to an existing system, to ensure systems are fast, secure, available and work as expected in an increasingly complex and distributed digital age.

The company is listed on the Sunday Times Hiscox Tech Track 100, and has quickly built up an excellent reputation with an enviable client list across financial services, telecommunications and media, utilities, retail and the public sector.

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