Micro Mart ‘IT Qualifications: Fit for purpose?’

Are IT Qualifications Working?

Q. Which of the following would indicate that ICT qualifications aren’t functioning properly?

A. Employers saying they’re not worth the paper they’re written on.

B. Teachers and examiners reporting they lack depth, rigour and creativity.

C. Young people calling them boring and patronising before turning away in droves.

D. Skills councils labelling them a soft option that requires radical overhaul.

E. All of the above.

At the moment, it’s an ‘all of the above’ situation. The IT skills gap is widening, the number of computing students has taken a dramatic nosedive, and employers, universities and pupils have little or no confidence in the ICT qualifications offered by schools and colleges. So how did we get into this mess? And what are we doing to get out of it?

The situation

More than half a million new highly skilled Technology professionals are estimated to be needed in the UK over the next five years, but serious doubt has been raised as to whether the current qualifications system will be able to deliver them. At the start of this year, almost half of those recruiting in the technology sector reported a lack of suitable candidates despite there being fewer vacancies and more competition than ever before.

For a sector so reliant on logic, a lot of this seems pretty illogical. ICT has been a compulsory part of the national curriculum since the late eighties, the 2012 university intake were born after the birth of the browser, and technology looms large in nearly all aspects of our everyday lives. Surely as a nation we should be getting better at IT?

The problem

It’s partly a question of passivity. In the same way that Ford Model T owners needed to grasp the mechanics of an internal combustion engine to crank their motors, most early PC adopters had a hands-dirty approach to hardware and basic programming that’s largely lacking today. Modern cars and computers might be everywhere, but those of us willing to get under the bonnet of either are now considered specialists rather than users.

Many of the young people who could potentially fill the IT skills gap have grown up with a ‘plug and play’ attitude to computing. Fifteen years ago, it was necessary to code if we were  to have any kind of online presence but since Facebook, WordPress, Tumblr and their like tipped up, it’s all offered on a plate.

What’s more, it seems that the ICT taught in schools is only reinforcing a passive approach to computing. Jane Evershed, co-author of Teaching Information Technology 14+ told Micro Mart that schools need to have more of a hands-on approach in the classroom: “Hardware isn’t taught in schools at all. Very rarely do children get their hands on a piece of hardware and take it apart which is something that really ought to change.”

That’s not the only thing schools are being urged to change. Bill Mitchell, director of the British Computer Society Academy sums up the situation: “The majority of students leave school actively disliking what they mistakenly believe to be Computing. As a result applications to UK university computer science courses have collapsed by 60% since 2000, yet the demand for software professionals across the EU has grown by 33% in the same period.”

Drop in applications

We spoke to Dr Colin Johnson, Head of the School of Computing at the University of Kent to ask why computing has experienced such a pronounced drop in applications: “The issue about the decline in numbers is quite complicated. There was almost an artificial boom in numbers around 1999-2001 when there was a lot of media hype around the computing industry which led to quite a steep increase in numbers of students studying computer science and related subjects at university.”

Perhaps then all this fuss about falling numbers isn’t warranted. Might the figures just represent a levelling out after the collapse of the dotcom bubble? Dr Johnson thinks so: “There was a time when people who didn’t necessarily have much interest in the subject were being pressured to go into IT and computing as it was seen as an easy way to make money. For a while it was very easy for people with relatively weak skills to get jobs, but that’s no longer the case.”

Next gen?

Whether degree applications have dropped vertiginously or reached a natural plateau, the prospect of a shiny new career in IT or computing seems to have lost its gleam for many. What’s to blame? The 2010 e-skills insights report doesn’t pull any punches in providing an answer: “ICT GCSE is a primary cause of the decline in student interest in IT-related education and careers.” The same report confirms the suspicions of many with a frank admission that “neither IT-related A levels or GCSEs are respected by employers or Higher Education”.

The problem with young people being turned off careers in IT and computing is the effect it has on the economy (or what’s left of it). The UK is already losing competitiveness in the global IT market, dropping from 3rd to 6th out of 66 in the past year alone, leaving us trailing behind the US, Finland, Sweden, Canada and the Netherlands. And things don’t look set to improve unless drastic action is taken and quickly.

So what are schools doing wrong?

ICT in schools

BCS Academy director Bill Mitchell thinks it’s to do with the ICT syllabus containing very little actual computing: “In too many cases students learn only how to use office software such as word processors or spreadsheets, and miss out entirely on the excitement of learning how computers actually work.”

Dr Johnson is of much the same opinion: “Unfortunately, the school curriculum has been boiled down to just the very basics. Although I don’t have any problem with ICT being in schools, I do have a problem that it’s pushed out the interesting and creative side of computing.”

A limited outlook

The crux of the matter seems to be that many young people are turning away from the subject because, in their words, it’s boring.  Having looked at some of the materials they have to contend with, I can’t really blame them. Being asked why a water sensor dangling in a full swimming pool should not be plugged directly into a computer is an insult to a most people’s intelligence, and believe me, that was one of the more interesting scenarios. Don’t get me started on Ahmed’s poster advertising the school disco…

Jane Evershed thinks one of the effects of a Microsoft Office-heavy approach in schools is not just that young people are uninspired, but that their outlook has become so narrow they’re unaware computing can be anything other than filling in cells and selecting key fields. “Students’ outlook is very much limited to spread sheets, databases and functional-type skills, with very little in terms of problem solving, creativity, innovation or using the information, data and skills they have to create something new.”

Specialist shortage

A fairly downbeat picture is emerging which doesn’t tell the whole story. There are of course innovative, creative and inspiring teachers who will ignite a computing spark amongst their pupils. There just aren’t enough of them. Bill Mitchell at the BCS has said that computing specialist teachers are in short supply, and many non-ICT specialists are corralled into teaching the subject at GCSE level without much support.

However hard a non-specialist works, being just one step ahead of pupils in the text book is hardly the route to sparkling computing and IT discoveries. The lack of specialist teachers is one key reason for the growth of apathy (or even antipathy) towards ICT amongst some young people.

Steps are being taken to attract specialists to the teaching profession, but whether they’ll bear fruit in time to rescue a lost generation remains to be seen. Evershed warns that the situation could get worse before it gets better: “If (Education Secretary) Michael Gove’s plan goes ahead and all teacher training takes place solely in schools then it will become limited to whatever training is available in that school. Teachers are already expected to pick it up as they go along, and the future could see them learning from a limited pool of people with a limited amount of knowledge.”

Which brings us to one of the most pressing issues in the discussion: how to ensure qualifications and skills remain relevant in a fast-changing sector.

Staying up-to-date

Gavin Patterson, the CEO of BT retail recently warned that the majority of technical skills being taught in universities will be defunct by the time young people are ten years into their careers. Jane Evershed is willing to go one better by saying that many of those skills in IT and computing are defunct almost as they’re being learned: “There’s always a time lag, a delay between what is taught in schools and colleges and what is actually out there in the business world. A lot of innovative and creative developments are happening very rapidly and we need people who can react to that.”

Outmoded skills

Computing lecturer Dr Johnson warned that while it’s advantageous to teach students some skills that are immediately applicable, if you only teach those skills they risk becoming worthless in years to come: “It’s important to have that balance between big ideas and new technologies as well as a general idea of computational thinking and how to approach problems in a computational way.”

Simon Black, a final year undergraduate in Computer Science at the University of Kent is more confident that his skills are future proof: “Certainly some of the languages might die out, but the principles won’t. We learn functional languages such as Haskell which might be quite old but you can still learn a lot from its principles. You pick up other languages and the knowledge becomes transferable. If you’re really good at one of the older languages then you’ll still be sought after because there are going to be legacy systems which need transferring.”

Time lag

Something that makes staying on the cutting edge difficult is that large institutions, especially public sector educational institutions, are like dinosaurs. It takes a lot of work at the brain end to get the tail end moving, and in the time it takes for new qualifications to be drafted, approved, piloted, redrafted, disseminated and planned for, we’re suddenly in the age of cloud computing while exam questions are still asking about floppy disks and zip drives.

Teachers aren’t unaware that the skills they deliver are often outmoded, but say there is too much inertia in the system to respond to changes with any timeliness. A teacher delivering a web design unit on a BTEC National Diploma course told us he was well aware that on the cusp of HTML5 and CSS3, teaching his students table layout and frames would not provide them with up-to-date industry skills, but that it would take another two years before his department would be able to implement the necessary changes.

Public vs. private sector

The public sector is just one side of the story. Private sector companies are able to offer businesses a wide range of IT and Computing courses as well as bespoke training. QA Ltd is one such company and we spoke to David Walker, their Principal Technologist for Internet and Web development, to find out how they try to stay on the cutting edge: “We’re lucky as a company that we work closely with leading IT software vendors, so we’re often delivering training to early-adopters before the software is released. For example, we’ve been involved with a readiness program for the latest Microsoft.NET 4 release by going out to see Microsoft in Redmond and then delivering key product awareness to partners and customers around the UK. We can react quickly to the market but I don’t think the public sector is able to offer the same speed of turnaround, in part because of the way it’s structured.”

Is e-learning the answer?

Skills council reports have suggested that e-learning might be the best way to remedy the time lag and plug the skills gap. Quicker to update, and flexible in terms of geography and cost, e-learning techniques have been touted as the twenty-first century solution to a deepening problem, but what do IT and computing educators think?

Dr Johnson makes the case that separating e-learning from other types of learning is a redundant approach in this day and age: “You can isolate it and say, oh, now we’re doing e-learning – well, of course we are, it’s the twenty-first century, what else are we going to do?”

Industry IT trainer David Walker is positive about its advantages: “It’s a really useful tool with some clear benefits. Our customers have found the ability to dip in and out, perform self-learning and attend online seminars a great way to train a distributed and time pressed staff. However, for more technical courses I believe that face-to-face training with an instructor is really important. It means we can see immediately if you are struggling or if you are going off track.” Like Walker, Evershed believes in a blended approach but is sceptical about the idea of using e-learning as a quick fix solution: “I don’t think e-learning is always the answer, though it might be seen as the cheap answer.”

Assessing for ICT

E-learning isn’t the only can of worms opened in this discussion, so is the tricky matter of testing and assessing IT and computing skills. Mick Waters, former Director of Curriculum at the Qualification and Curriculum Authority has spoken about the difficulty of the first national ICT tests in 1989: “There was a SAT for ICT, which had to be constructed so that it could be done without a computer because not all schools had access to one. It was a bit like seeing whether someone could swim, but without any water.”

Sounds ridiculous no? But it still happens. Online testing is widespread in many IT qualifications but not across the board. Evershed reminds us that while: “99% of your learning in IT is going to be sitting at a computer, in a GCSE exam you’re still handwriting on a piece of paper.” Evershed also suggests that GCSE exam questions, many of which are multiple choice, are failing to assess depth of knowledge but instead focusing on only surface understanding.

Is such an approach a genuinely effective test of IT and computing skills? Many teachers are dissatisfied with assessment methods for ICT qualifications that ask learners to print out step by step evidence or reproduce gobbets of information without a computer in sight. Evershed suggests that these methods straightjacket teachers into delivering the courses “in a reductionist, prescriptive manner” so “students are taught to pass the exam but not to think outside the box. You start from this point and then work your way through – usually copying instructions and quite often with everybody coming up with very similar ideas and end products. The process is just lost.”

So what of employers? In recent years, we’ve heard complaints from industry that modern graduates don’t have the transferable skills to change a toner cartridge let alone maintain the network security for a large multinational. Even with 2.45 million people unemployed, employers are still reporting a shortage of suitable candidates for technology-based roles. What is wrong with the existing raft of qualifications in the eyes of employers?

An industry perspective

Michael Holland is the managing director of 5G Communications, a UK business telecoms company employing around 100 people, and says that the people to fill the skills gap in his industry just aren’t available at the moment in the UK.

“The education system is sadly lacking. It used to be the case that people went to university to do an ‘ology’ but now they go and do IT. They need to be much more specific about what they learn. If schools and universities taught them Microsoft and Cisco qualifications they’d walk out straight into a job.”

Asked whether, as an employer, he felt that Microsoft or Cisco accredited qualifications trumped GCSEs or BTECs, the answer was a resounding yes from Mr Holland, who went on to explain why more specific qualifications are the answer: “It’s like asking a candidate, have you got a driving license? And they say yes, so you say ‘Okay, jump in that 40 ton articulated lorry’ but they say, ‘Well, I’ve only got a license for a moped.’ It’s a crude analogy for a sophisticated and complicated world but often young people confuse having put a hard drive in their computer and being good at gaming with having real IT knowledge and it’s just not the case.”

Asking too much?

While employers like Michael Holland are demanding more specific technical skills endorsed by the likes of Microsoft and Cisco, other industry spokespeople are insisting on a broader technology curriculum that incorporates the creative arts. How are the qualifications supposed to cater to everyone? Dr Johnson talked to us about computing being in an unusual position as a subject due to the number of internal and external pressures on the curriculum: “We have a clear industry push which is not always consistent. Sometimes it’s for specific technical skills, sometimes more for business skills and it’s very difficult because where do you go? If you’ve just got three years do you focus on those technical skills or on those soft skills?”

Where are the shortages?

The most common skills shortages in 2009 were reported by firms recruiting programming, technical support and IT & Telecoms management posts and the most advertised roles in the second quarter of 2009 were in systems development, systems design and technical support.

The technical specialism involved in such industries shouldn’t be ignored. With the need to continuously update skills and growing dissatisfaction about the qualifications new employees are bringing with them from schools, colleges and universities, it’s no wonder that almost 80% of large companies provided in-house or outsource private sector training for their IT, computing and telecoms professionals in 2009.

At present, the qualifications landscape for technology professionals is seen as complex, fragmented and maze-like. There are too many qualifications, say employers, making it too difficult to tell what’s what. One solution proposed is the new National Skills Academy for IT, currently in a pilot stage, through which e-skills aim to streamline the provision of the UK’s professional IT qualifications.

Industry options

Pricy private training or trying to fit round peg public provision in the square hole of industry are not the only options. The government has been pushing employers for years to become more involved with schools, colleges and universities and to design IT and computing qualifications that fulfil their needs. Is this an attractive proposition to employers? Michael Holland thinks so: “I think it’d be a revolution if the education agencies said ‘what do you want us to teach people? What skills do you want?’

To an extent, this kind of collaboration has been going on for some time but more in beta than in final release. The 700 Microsoft Academies in the UK have sold themselves on the basis that they deliver skills that are meaningful to employers who can trust in the Microsoft name. But is that level of industry involvement welcomed by all in education? Dr Johnson sees both advantages and potential battles ahead: “organisations that do accreditation of courses might insist for example that you put certain things in the curriculum, which is very valuable in a way, but can also mean that you’re pressured to put certain things in and you don’t necessarily have the ability to say no.”

The Apprentice

Katie Van Sanden, Industrial Placement Coordinator for the University of Kent’s School of Computing argues that the year in industry is a further solution. Despite a national drop in the number of IT and computing courses offering such placements, Van Sanden calls them ‘win-win’ arrangements. Two years ago, every student at the school who achieved first class honours had a year in industry which Van Sanden sees as “a powerful indicator” of the benefits of internships for students and employers.

David Walker of QA also supports internships as a way forward: “We’ve set up a number of apprenticeship programmes, as we were getting feedback from our customers that they wanted enthusiastic young people with hands-on skills.  We’re seeing an increasing number of young people taking up an apprenticeship rather than the A-levels/college route to qualification.”

The future

Any systems analyst worth their weight in RAM knows that identifying a problem is the first step to solving it, so it’s some consolation that these issues have finally been recognised. But one thing is certain, with such a clear need for a new, collaborative approach, IT qualifications 2.0 can’t come soon enough.

This article originally appeared in issue 1140 of Micro Mart on 13th Jan 2011