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Computing curriculum shake-up can’t happen in a single five-year parliamentary term, says panel

At the launch of Ocado Technology’s AI:MMO educational game, a panel of experts said the computing curriculum needs an overhaul, but this cannot be achieved in a single government term of office

The computing curriculum needs a shake-up, but a sustainable long-term outcome will be difficult to achieve in a single five-year parliamentary term, an expert panel has suggested.

During the launch of a huge online multiplayer game developed by grocer Ocado, representatives from the retail, technology and education industries said it is “unrealistic” to think a government can overhaul the education system in just one term of office.

Paul Clarke, chief technology officer at Ocado, said that as technology such as artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics becomes more readily available, there will be a growing skills gap in these areas because the current curriculum does not have the flexibility to quickly introduce new ideas into the classroom.

Clarke said widespread changes to the curriculum to address this problem “can’t be addressed by short-term thinking”, which is why single five-year government terms are not enough to reform the education system.

“We need to take education out and say this is a civil problem that we need to solve in a cross-party way, so we can take that long-term view,” he said.

Online supermarket Ocado has released its AI:MMO game, an education platform designed to teach children about AI-related sectors, to try to prepare young people for some of the concepts they may have to deal with in their future jobs.

The government has attempted to train young people in digital by introducing the new computing curriculum in schools, but the panel said this does not teach children the concept of continuous learning, to have the ability to “reinvent themselves” when new technologies that do not yet exist disrupt their future lives and careers.

Clarke said children should be taught some of the technology concepts that are becoming more and more relevant today, such as interpreting and using data to develop models, what it means to be human in the wake of automation and how to be “data literate”.

“True digital literacy is much more than just teaching kids to code,” he said. “We need to be weaving this digital literacy throughout the curriculum.”

Education system ‘failing’

Clarke claimed that the UK education system is “failing” to give children the love of learning they will need in order to foster the attitude for continuous learning later in life, mainly because the focus on exams “suffocates” teachers’ ability to bring fun into the classroom.

In an automated future, creative and softer skills will be vital because these are the skills that will be harder to replicate in machines.

Paul Curzon, professor of computer science at Queen Mary University of London, said more needs to be done to “inspire fun” in education, because this makes learning more accessible.

“The creative subjects in schools matter as well,” he said. “You need to be creative to code.”

Although the computing curriculum does what it can to teach children about technology concepts, Curzon said it is “fragile”, mainly because of a lack of teachers and the inability to quickly introduce new concepts, such as AI, automation, quantum computing or robotics, which will soon be a big part of people’s day-to-day lives.

This means that as well as the skills gap in the technology sector, there will be a lack of people with the digital skills to navigate through their everyday jobs and lives – a pattern that is already forming.

Curzon added: “It’s not just that we need a skilled workforce – we actually need people who are wise, people who understand the technology and the ethics and the consequences.”

Inspire people to be teachers

To fuel the pipeline, said Curzon, we also need to inspire people to be teachers as well as to be interested in science, technology, engineering and maths (Stem), but he claimed the UK has “stopped valuing” teachers.

“I think the first thing that is the immediate issue is actually supporting teachers,” he said. “We need to get more of our students interested in teaching as a career themselves.”

But the teachers the education system already has lack confidence in their ability to teach concepts such as coding, and some panellists suggested teachers should be allowed a sabbatical in the industry to get a better idea of what it’s like and then come back with ideas.

Andy Lawson, general manager of Salesforce UKI, called for more collaboration between industry and education providers to help teachers make Stem sound more exciting and make it clear what technology roles involve.

Some firms try to tackle this knowledge gap by inviting people from industry to talk about their jobs at local schools, and Lawson said doing this will help “change the dynamic” of the workplace, the industry and classrooms.

Interesting projects

As the younger generation enter the workplace, they expect a lot from their employers, and some have already warned that if the workplace doesn’t match up to young people’s expectations, they will look elsewhere. Lawson pointed out that young people want to work on interesting projects, such as building games.

“We have to learn as an industry that if we want the next generation of developers to come into our organisations, we have to make it exciting,” he said.

But this doesn’t address the need to teach children that they will have to carry on learning and adapting after they have left school.

Dev Amratia, co-founder and CEO of nPlan, said teachers need to be able to teach children to have “creative freedom” as well as to be resilient – things that are very difficult to teach.

“There needs to be a bit more of a reboot of the education system,” he said, “which is a far bolder statement to make than tinkering with the curriculum.”

Amratia concluded that it is “unrealistic” to think any government can completely change the education system in the ways that are needed, during a single term in power.

Suggestions for a computing curriculum shake-up

Paul Clarke, chief technology officer of Ocado

Clarke highlighted that Ocado’s new AI:MMO game aims to teach secondary school students about artificial intelligence (AI) through free, open source games and teaching materials that match up with the current curriculum.

As there are expected to be 157,000 AI-related jobs to fill by 2020, Ocado’s AI:MMO game aims to give teachers a way to creatively include computing concepts into the classroom to make learning about them more fun.

Paul Curzon, professor of computer science at Queen Mary University of London

Curzon called for more “integration of subjects”, where things such as digital are taught based on how they relate to other subjects in the curriculum. He also said the curriculum could be more flexible about what subjects students take, allowing them to specialise in areas they think suit them best.

“There might be a particular core syllabus, but not everybody has to learn the same things and they learn where their interests go,” he said. “We need more diversity and the fairest way of doing that, and the way that works best for learning, is they go in their interests.”

Dev Amratia, co-founder and CEO of nPlan

Amratia suggested schools should move away from an exam-based “value system” to stop the pressure put on teachers to ensure children gain high marks from being passed on to the children and stifling creativity.

He also said a “gamified” approach to learning could help make the classroom more creative and fun. This could “take kids and teachers down a pathway where for teachers it’s not just turning up at work”, he said.

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