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Computer literacy in the UK comes under heat

Eric Schmidt speaks about weakness of computer science in British education system at Edinburgh International Film Festival.
Google chairman said the UK needs better computer science education in his MacTaggart lecture at the Edinburgh TV festival. Courtesy Edinburgh International Film Festival.

At the Edinburgh International Television Festival last week, Google Chairman, Eric Schmidt, delivered the McTaggart Lecture - a lecture usually delivered by a television executive. Unfortuantely for those involved in computer science, his message was a not a positive one.

"I was flabbergasted to learn that today computer science isn't even taught as standard in UK schools," was one of his messages (watch a short clip, right).

Schmidt is not the first person to notice. "A decline in research computing literacy was recently identified by the UK's e-Infrastructure Advisory Group," said Tom Crick, senior lecturer in computer science at the University of Wales Institute, Cardiff (UWIC), who has been campaigning for a change in the education syllabus. Crick has been working with the Chief Scientific Advisor of Wales, John Harries, on a plan to make computing a key part of the national curriculum and the UK's digital economy.

According to the report by the e-Infrastucture Advisory Group, released in June 2011, "the decline in research grade e-literacy among UK researchers was seen as a concern and this was magnified by the decreasing flow of computational specialists from undergraduate to postgraduate level." And in July, Crick chaired the first Welsh computing education conference. The conference raised awareness among policy makers, teachers and students.

This general illiteracy could have serious consequences for the UK's competitiveness, according to Crick. "A continued lack of focus in computer science education could hinder job opportunities for many students currently in school today and have serious ramifications for the UK economy over the next 10 to 20 years," he said.

"The current incarnation of ICT taught in UK schools is creating a generation of technology consumers; 'digital literacy' is important, but this is not computing. You can use and innovate with technology more effectively if you understand how it works," he said.

"As a nation [the UK], we're behind the likes of South Korea, Finland and China. I believe it's of strategic national importance that all children in the UK have the option to study computing in school between the ages of 11 and 16," he said.

"When comparing a discipline such as physics which has a pedigree spanning hundreds of years of history, computer science is a relatively new field trying to build credibility," he said.

- Adrian Giordani

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