Kevin Streater FBCS, BCS Learning & Development specialist group, argues that IT can help to solve global problems, but there is a real need for more critical thinking and problem solving skills from new IT trainees.

I recently chaired a roundtable discussion at BCS, hosted by The Open University, on the future of IT skills. We wanted to move the debate forward from ‘how do we get more people into IT?’ to focus on how IT is evolving and what skills are therefore needed to ensure it fulfils its potential.

The two major conclusions were that, firstly, IT should be seen as a way to solve big global problems, from economic growth to curing cancer, and secondly that it can only do so if we move towards instilling problem solving and critical thinking skills, not just technical ones.

The panel agreed the rapid pace of technology change means that we must re-approach IT education. Technical skills quickly become outdated but the underlying approach to IT problems - including understanding the challenge, planning, selecting technology and managing implementation - remained similar. These skills need to become more widely taught if we are to apply the UK’s computing skills to global business, economic and societal challenges.

IT to change the world

Dr Jon Hall, a senior lecturer in computing at The Open University, opened by noting that areas like medicine, physics and chemistry have some of the most exciting problems in the world. However, we often don’t make the link that computing is needed to solve them.

To do this, we need to inspire students to change the world through computing. An analogy can be drawn to the medical profession: doctors and academics go into schools and create role models, and in doing so they protect their industry’s future. Computing could be like that.

We need to inspire people to recognise that with computing you can change the world, to show them they can earn a fortune as CIO of a global company or play a part in curing cancer.

Melindi Britz from CompTIA makes the point that a lot of the skills debate is aimed at inspiring people into jobs such as the likes of Google or IBM, but the real skills gap lies with small businesses and vertical sectors like medicine. IT start-ups also need better IT skills, as well as business skills, to grow their business and create more IT jobs.

We have the most entrepreneurial generation ever about to join the workforce; we need them to have the technical and critical skills to make the most of that, not just push them toward big companies.

The IT skills we need

Dr Arosha Bandara, also a senior lecturer in computing at The Open University, argued that critical thinking and problem solving are key to preparing for these opportunities. He raised concerns that many training providers teach how technology works, not how to solve problems with it.

Stephen Allott, trainer at Capita IT Professional Services agreed, highlighting the inconsistency in IT education. On their graduate programme they find some recent graduates know how to take this critical approach, whilst others have just been spoon-fed knowledge.

The panel felt the industry was a way off recognising the value of critical thinking. It seems that it is fairly easy to persuade a company they need some technical skills that will last them a couple of years, but they lose interest when offered problem solving skills that will serve them for the next 20 years.

Teaching the IT skills of the future

A big challenge is teaching in a way that works for people. We need to understand learning styles. Different people work differently and have different needs in different situations, so to create the best workforce, we need to offer a choice.

It was suggested that a balance might be struck by universities playing the role of instilling the long-term skills needed by IT professionals at both an undergrad and post-grad level. These will include critical and problem solving skills as well as topics that are here to stay, like security. Meanwhile, trainers will run shorter courses on technical skills like C++ and skills of the moment like offshoring / reshoring, which are necessary, but will need regular updating.

However, critically, our approach must be part of a long-term vision, which is developed and bought into by industry, academia and government, and supported by public investment. As Dr Hall concluded, we need to talk on 25-year timescales, not five years. We must implement this properly; otherwise we may find that we don’t have a UK IT industry.

The debate was hosted at the BCS London offices by The Open University. The panellists were:

  • Chair, Kevin Streater, BCS Learning & Development Specialist Group
  • Dr Jon Hall, The Open University
  • Melindi Britz, CompTIA
  • Dr Arosha Bandara, The Open University
  • Stephen Allott, Capita IT Professional Services.