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Look at the syllabus not gender of A-Level ICT and Computing students

Column Computer science is not the magic bullet
Fri Aug 17 2012, 14:11

THE LATEST BATCH of A-Level results and in particular the numbers taking Information Communications Technology (ICT) and Computing exams have been widely reported in the technology press, with some talking about the numbers of girls taking the exam. However it isn't the gender that should be the talking point but the quality of the education and the examination for all of those that take the subjects.

There seems to be a fixation to get teenagers into computer science, as if no other skills are needed in the United Kingdom. The number of girls taking the now devalued ICT A-Level exam and falling - how can we let this stand? Quite easily actually, because computer science is not for every boy or girl, just like any other subject.

The problem for many who believe that computer science, which by the way is a very far cry from an ICT A-level, is the answer for everyone simply don't realise what the subject is about. Computer science might be fashionable, but deep down it is a very theoretical applied science and there is a reason why many universities have computer science and mathematics departments located next to each other.

Computer science isn't simply about coding, as any first-year computer science degree student will confirm. Not only is the subject steeped in mathematics, courses on basic computing theory and concepts such as computer architecture, operating systems and databases require more time reading books like Hennessey and Patterson and Silberschatz than in front of an integrated development environment bashing out code that the naive press ridiculously believes will become "the next Facebook or Twitter".

In the past few years, computer technology and in particular computer programming have become very fashionable. Even the BBC has talked many times about initiatives to get teenagers coding as if it is some silver bullet for young people to earn loads of money and improve the economy. Surprisingly enough, it isn't.

Programming is a very valuable skill but just like computer science, bashing out code isn't what commercial programmers do, in fact writing code is not even half of what a programmer's job entails. The less than glamorous truth is that for half a day's worth of actual code writing comes a day or more of tedious debugging.

Debugging is ensuring that the program does what it should. There are a number of test strategies but fundamentally it consists of running the algorithm for a number of values and checking that the results that are output match the theoretical values. This is far from the bashing out of AJAX Web 2.0 code that many seem to believe all programmers spend all of their time doing.

Depending on what industry the programmer works in, debugging can range from selecting a few variables to exhausting all possible scenarios. While debugging can be automated, given the very specific problems programs are trying to solve, it isn't a matter of clicking a few icons and watching a progress bar.

Of course you don't read about that in the media because it doesn't whet the appetite and makes for a rather uninteresting story.

Programming, or even computer science, isn't the only subject that will help the United Kingdom, or any other country, to build a sustainable economy. A similar emphasis should be put on engineering and medicine because as this country found out in 2008, relying on one industry is not all that prudent.

As for the press interest in the gender of those taking ICT - or any subject for that matter - it's hard to see what those writers want the government to do. Perhaps they would like the government to start socially engineering girls from the age of six to sign up for computer science related subjects? No, I didn't think so.

Anyone with any modicum of sense will realise that there's nothing stopping boys or girls from taking up computer science, or any subject for that matter. They have a right to choose what subject they study and the best we can do is provide accurate information on what the subject is really about so students can make an informed choice. It's far better to have fewer, highly motivated students that are truly interested in a subject than students who just want to pass an exam because it promises higher wages.

Rather than worry about the gender of those taking degrees, the focus should be on teaching the fundamentals of the subject. Computer science when taught properly already does this at the degree level, because the syllabus is set by lecturers and professors - people who actually know the subject rather than use it as a political football to score some cheap points.

Computer science isn't for every male or female, in the same way that we don't expect everyone to sign up for courses in physics, mathematics or chemistry. Instead of watering the subject down, perhaps those that set up A-level ICT and Computer Science study programmes should do more to ensure that those who do take them are prepared for university and ultimately the real world of computer science related jobs in industry. µ


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