Why computing? ...And why not

March 2016

Businessmen using laptopLisa Payne PhD MBCS discusses issues related to computing education and the IT skills gap and makes some suggestions for employers, BCS and universities.

From the perspective of someone who has spent most of her career in universities, there are a number of conundrums about the world of computing higher education.

Why are computing students less likely than other students to be satisfied with their course1 and have weaker progression through their courses2? Why are some students surprised by core aspects of their course or don’t enjoy it: what led them to enrol?  Why does computing have the highest rate of graduate unemployment3 of all subjects, yet employers report an IT skills gap? The research I describe here provided insight into some of the factors involved.

The research

So significant are the consequences of these issues to the UK economy that, during the period of my research, there were a number of formal investigations, most particularly by the Royal Society4.

Relevant statistics exist but there is a limited appreciation of the root causes of these conundrums. I collected narrative data and used it to build profiles of individuals’ personal histories and viewpoints, to endeavour to see the world of computing, and their choices, ‘through their eyes’. I employed a number of established social theories to help develop a better understanding of the social dynamics and structures which were influencing these individuals, although I shall not present those theories here.

The 61 participants in this study included both school pupils, as they went through the process of choosing what, if anything, to study at university and students, with many participants engaged for a year or more. They took part in activities such as focus groups, individual interviews, questionnaires, personality assessments and a myriad of others, which collectively portrayed participants and their attitudes in rich detail. Many of the participants were enrolled at Coventry University, but not all were, some having relationships with other universities.

There was input from students who took part in a national competition about the image of computing. In addition, views were sought from academics, working across the range of universities, who described their experiences.

Participants were not randomly selected, but rather the research was designed to gather input from a range of diverse individuals. The resulting data corpus comprised over 200 data items. More detail is available elsewhere5. A wide-range of issues emerged, but I shall focus here on those most relevant to the IT industry and profession. There is a separate report which discusses all the key issues6.

The image of the profession

The profession suffers from a well-recognised, negative stereotype with employees being characterised as asocial, pernickety and focused to the point of obsession, but skilled. This is the ‘geek’. Whilst there are reports that the term ‘geek’ is being destigmatised, ‘reclaimed’ and can even be a source of appeal and attraction - and this does appear to be the case - I found no evidence of it in this research. No participant really identified with the label and it is still seen as being pejorative.

‘I want to be a software developer and I had a couple of people call me a geek. But I said I’ll be the one who’s laughing when I’m programming your games’ (John). However this stereotype does not reflect most IT employees. Much of the industry is looking for staff who have communication and social skills, and business awareness. Indeed technical skills are only a minor requirement for some roles.

Whilst BCS has done much over recent decades to raise standards within the profession, little has been done to change the public perception of IT. It is the geek image which is so often used in the media. And the consequences are highly significant: deterring applicants who don’t feel they would fit in, perhaps particularly women; attracting some people who don’t enjoy interpersonal activity, misleading them; leading some students to expect only technical activities which, in turn, hinders the development of well-rounded graduates.

Recommendation:
BCS should actively promote the profession to the public, giving a sense of the range of jobs within the profession, indicating the intellectual processes which might be called upon and presenting IT professionals as being personable human beings. Some of this work should be aimed at pre-teens.
 

Public and pupil understanding

Some pupils undertake very little research in choosing their degree. In part this is because they do not realise that universities design their own curriculum (within a broad framework). In addition, most schools did not teach technical computing but instead ICT, which often focuses exclusively on the use of pre-existing IT systems.

Hence many people use ‘computing’ and ‘IT’ (and ‘ICT’) as synonyms: indeed for many people in the profession too, they are. However this nomenclature has led to a wide-spread belief that the school ICT curriculum reflects the sort of work undertaken by people in the profession. ‘I’ve said I’m doing computer science and people immediately assume it’s ICT and thought it was really easy’ (Martin).

It was notable that nearly all participants who had a reasonable understanding of what computing ‘is’ had acquired this through family or friends, who themselves work in the profession. The consequences of this lack of understanding are misinformed course and career choices, sometimes leading to unhappy students. Also, computing courses can be seen as lacking credibility:

‘(Her father) didn’t think that it (computer science) was worthy-enough as a degree’ (Victoria).

As many readers will know, as a result of widespread pressure, from 2014 computing is being taught in all maintained schools in England. This is being supported by Computing at Schools (CAS) (now part of the BCS Academy) with numerous, diverse forms of support available to teachers. This curriculum change should lead to school pupils having a much improved understanding of the nature of computing.

Whether computing appeals to pupils as a career option will depend, in part, on how effectively schools deliver this new subject. Some teachers are eager to deliver it and are preparing lessons which should enthuse pupils. However, as noted by the Royal Society, there is a serious shortage of specialist teachers.

There is a real risk that hastily prepared teaching, delivered by staff with very limited expertise, will return us to the position in 1990, at a time computing was often taught in schools, when the HMI concluded that it was very often ‘dry, dull and unexciting’7. This would be an opportunity lost, potentially to the significant detriment of recruitment to the profession.

Recommendations:
Universities need to ensure that applicants fully understand the nature of their courses. The government must continue the new scholarships and bursaries for the training of specialist teachers, in the long-term.
Schools will deliver the new curriculum better if they have longer to prepare for it and time is allowed to train more specialist teachers. It is, therefore, suggested that the government defers the absolute requirement to deliver this curriculum for a period of, say, two years.
 

Careers information and advice

The careers advice received by participants seldom presented opportunities in computing at all accurately: indeed some advisors themselves saw the profession as the geek stereotype. The consequences of this are, of course, that some pupils who are well suited, maybe particularly women, must be overlooking computing.

Recommendations:
Policy makers, especially those in government, should enhance computing outreach opportunities at least by, whenever possible, extending STEM initiatives to include computing. (Some currently do not.) BCS should investigate and review the range of careers material readily available to careers advisors in schools, both those produced by the Institute and those of other origins. It may be helpful to create and/or disseminate more, with a view to helping advisors form a balanced view of modern IT careers.
 

Employment issues

New graduates need skills to equip them for employment, of course. Understandably students expect it. Even those few computer science degrees, which are so highly theoretical that they are experienced as a form of ‘applied mathematics’, need to pay due consideration to employability. However, most degrees in a computing subject are intended to be vocationally focused and to provide graduates with smooth entry into some part of the IT industry.

Nonetheless it was notable how little awareness some enrolled students had of potential employment options. There are a number of tensions associated with employment. Academics in some universities commented that they had difficulty in providing their computing students with adequate hardware, and particularly software, to give them experience of technologies used in industry. Budgets can be insufficient to provide these specialist facilities, as opposed to a ‘university standard’ computer, adequate for most of the student population. (I must point out that this was not raised at Coventry.)

Students can expect a lot though:

‘In five years that’s... that’s like so much in computing... You’re going to have lost out on the game. You’ve got to keep up with everything which is coming out new: stay up-to-date’ (Chris).

‘Even just like (after) one year you’re really behind’ (Justin).

These students believe that they need skills in the most current versions of technologies. Some job adverts certainly specify in some detail the expertise sought. For example, a recent advertisement:

‘A fairly good working knowledge of XHTML, CSS and in particular PHP and object oriented programming - some experience with WordPress is also required. We are not looking for creative designers for this role, just coders please.’

With the huge range of technologies used in industry, no university can deliver to every employer’s specific needs. Universities usually aim to deliver long-term, ‘transferable’ knowledge and understandings, with less concern about detailed specifics.

Whilst some employers provide thorough training and are able to recruit graduates against generic and transferable, rather than specific, skills and knowledge there are clearly many who do not (or can not).

The low level of training in IT, reported by the TechPartnership/BCS8, was discussed recently in this publication9. The level of training is lower than in other employment sectors, and is declining, despite the rapid speed of technological change in this industry.

Recommendations:
All degrees should be designed with employability in mind. Courses should expose students to an appropriate range of industrially-relevant technologies, to facilitate their employment. Courses need to expose students to careers options. Employers need to be as flexible as possible in their advertising and recruitment, especially for first-level graduate jobs.
 

Dr Lisa Payne is an Honorary Lecturer (formerly a Principal Lecturer) at Coventry University. The findings described here emerged from her recent PhD research.

References
 

Image: iStock/000052912110

Comments (3)

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  • 1
    Albert Williams wrote on 10th Mar 2016

    Thank you Dr Lisa Payne,

    For such an illuminating piece on the general out look of Computing and IT.

    As a soon-to-be-graduate of an Open University BSc Computing and IT (Hons) program,and not at the moment being employed in a related industry. My next move is one of find a suitable springboard on which to launch my IT career.

    This article gives me the overview I need to chart my way forward

    Regards

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  • 2
    Liz Cooper wrote on 1st Apr 2016

    I recommend the BCS sees if it can get a TV drama produced that features people in non-geeky IT roles and some of the things that happen in real life (particularly the good, interesting ones) - e.g. an analyst starting work with a different and interesting part of the business; or travelling somewhere good to investigate system requirements or roll out a system (e.g. I got to the Canaries on one project)

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  • 3
    Robin Skitt wrote on 4th Apr 2016

    IT is actually first and foremost a creative industry. Creative in the sense that it needs a lot of imagination on how to harness the power of computing to solve business & social problems.
    We need to solve these things with compelling and intuitive applications that look as good as they are functional.
    We actually underplay this aspect because the way we tend to value ourselves is by how much technical jargon we can regurgitate.
    Just look at the pathway to CEng. as an example of this; it gives no scope for someone who has the creative skills to interpret business value and user stories and turn them into an application that everyone WANTS to use.
    I also think that the curriculum is loaded with a lot of technical concept rubbish that actually adds very little to what business want from the modern / future IT leaders.
    My son is just finishing a BTEC level 3 and as an IT professional of 27 years the curriculum is boring.
    We are somewhere on journey towards IT being the most important industry to take the human race to the next level; its awe-inspiring to imagine where the current technical innovations could take us in terms medical, social and sustainability but our academic curriculum is doing nothing to motivate the next generation down this route.

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