The BBC reported yesterday on the Royal Society's forthcoming report of IT education in UK schools which comes to the conclusion that IT lessons are dull. This dullness is putting children off of computing careers.
I agree with the report's findings (which isn't actually due to be published until 2011) based on my experience of studying IT at a UK school. The lessons were basically instruction in how to use Microsoft software and involved little teaching of the fundamentals of computing.
IT lessons were very business oriented, for example 'how to use create a spreadsheet', 'how to create an Access database' rather than teaching the underlying ideas behind computers.
The reliance on Microsoft software in the workplace has also led to a domination the education sector with schools, exam boards, etc attempting to cater for business needs.
My A Level IT lessons were extremely dull - not a fault of the school exactly, but a fault of the curriculum and the syllabus set by the exam board.
I got very bored in the IT lessons which lead to finding more interesting things to do with the school's computer system instead. They weren't exactly part of the syllabus although they did involve more computing; the school wasn't happy and it eventually got me into trouble. I obtained high grades in my first year, including 100% for one module - the coursework, I think.
During my second A level year I'd learnt my lesson and stuck with teacher sanctioned work. However, my 2nd year coursework wasn't up to the exam board's standards. I think it contained too much computing content. My teacher thought my coursework was great; so did I.
My coursework consisted of a basic PHP and MySQL website - PHP and MySQL were not included on the syllabus but my teacher thought it would be OK as long as I followed the project guidelines.
I taught myself PHP and MySQL from a book and followed the exam board's syllabus for the coursework to structure my report. The old website is still online - it's not very good, but I was just beginning to learn PHP and MySQL at the time.
That year - the year in which my coursework wasn't Microsoft based - I received the lowest grade in the class.
Anyway, the dullness of the IT lessons didn't put me off computing. In fact, in a weird way, I think they actually helped. You see, when I got into trouble my punishment was to help out the system administrator during my spare time. It was great; I learnt a lot about supporting users on a computer network and IT support tasks. Eventually the school offered me a paid part-time job as an IT support assistant during my 2nd year.
The other thing that the dull lessons prompted me to do was teach myself something interesting. So, in learning PHP and MySQL I gained extra skills that others in the class didn't have.
I eventually became the school's part-time webmaster after I finished my A levels, re-developing their website using PHP and MySQL. A job which I stayed with throughout my bachelor's degree in Computer Science.
Now I'm studying for a PhD in Computer Science due, in part, to the dullness of the IT lessons I had when younger.
So the dullness worked out great for me but it's not great for everyone. I already had an interest in computers so I didn't need any encouragement in further studies. This is the big problem highlighted by the Royal Society report - children, who aren't already enthusiastic about IT, won't be excited about an IT career based on the lessons they receive.
Other children may be mislead about the computing industry; thinking that all they need to learn is how to use Word and Excel. They may end up at university, on a computer science degree, out of their depth when they realise that there's more to computers than just word processing and spreadsheets.
Unfortunately, universities getting students with little knowledge of real computing will have to dumb down their degrees to cater for them.
So, how to solve this problem? Well, that's what the Royal Society's report will hopefully answer. Maybe it could involve open-source software and basic programming & analytical skills, as has been suggested by others. Microsoft Office skills are, of course, important in the workplace but qualifications shouldn't be built around them. Many students probably already know the basic computer skills necessary for business as many will have computers at home. Maybe schools need two types of IT classes: computer skills and computing. The former teaching skills useful for business while the later teaches computing.
Professor Steve Furber, chairing the study for the Royal Society believes that "If we cannot address the problem of how to educate our young people in inspirational and appropriate ways, we risk a future workforce that is totally unskilled and unsuited to tomorrow's job market."