Teaching tech: How coding moved from the bedroom to the classroom

There are those whose computer screens are bathed in light. These are the consumers – you and me, creating documents with black type on white backgrounds, looking at websites and apps that overflow with jolly colours. The experience is so illuminated that opticians recommend you dim the brightness on your monitor. The Telegraph reports.

Then there are those whose screens are dark. These are the producers, typing line after complex line of code in tiny fonts jutting in from the margin like an arrowhead, each flecked with symbols, slashes, exclamation marks and brackets /!<>. To help them make out this script, which builds the brilliantly lit online world we outsiders see, most coders type in pale fonts on dark backgrounds. Walk into any tech company and you will find them: rows and rows of programmers, staring intently at largely black screens. They are the talent.

There are an estimated 100,000 plus jobs waiting to be filled in the tech sector, and almost half a million more to come in the next few years. So you would think that Britain’s computer science graduates, of whom we produce about 27,000 each year, would be the hottest ticket in town, in scorching demand from employers. But there is something rotten in the state of Britain’s education system. For six months after leaving university, the graduates with the highest rate of unemployment in this country are those who studied computer science, at nearly 14 per cent.

Opinion varies about just how bad computer science university degrees are in preparing students for the world of work. But the reality is that a host of alternative coding schools have sprung up in an effort to plug the gap. These are often short-term, intensive, usually expensive, immersion courses for those who want to switch careers into tech. One such, Makers’ Academy, whose catchline is “Learn to Code in 12 Weeks”, is run by Evgeny Shadchnev, an engaging young entrepreneur who came from Russia to study for his masters in computer science at Imperial. He then stayed in London and got his first job as a software developer at a marketing agency called Traffic Broker. When he started working, he was shocked. “What I learned on the job is that most of what was expected of me was not covered at university, down to the very basics: how to work as part of a team, how to use version control, and other modern technologies.”

No one is quite sure why. But it seems that, sometime in the last two decades, during which the internet has boomed, women have decided – or been given the impression – that shaping the digital world is not for them. “In digital we have this particularly unpleasant problem around gender diversity,” says Rachid Hourizi, an academic at the University of Bath who has just been chosen to be the first director of Britain’s new Institute of Coding.  “It is morally wrong that we don’t serve everybody, and it’s a waste of talent, which is wrong in practical terms, too. Frankly, it is despicable.”

The ramifications are significant. In an industry struggling to recruit suitable staff, half the population – women – are not even candidates. Moreover, overwhelmingly white, male bias poses commercial problems, too. “Think of early voice recognition software which didn’t recognise women’s voices because they weren’t in the right register,” says Amali de Alwis, head of Code First: Girls,. Her view is that the best way of building better tech products is to have better representation of women and ethnic minorities working in the groups that build those products. As these become more essential to our daily lives, the importance of doing so only grows. “This is not just about buying a table or a chair,” she says. “Facebook, Twitter, Uber – all of these companies are becoming infrastructure, not just technological tools used by some. If there is bias being built into the systems, we’re taking that bias with us forever. What kind of world do we want to create? Now is the time to say something.”

Of course, the blame for this malaise cannot be laid exclusively at the door of the higher education system. The problem starts further down the chain, with primary and secondary schools, with parents who do not encourage daughters to consider STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and maths). It is a failure that riles David Perks, headmaster of the East London Science School (ELSS), a free school set up in 2013.

At the moment, in STEM subjects, children are only required to take maths and a combined science GCSE. “That’s how little you can get away with. But the chances of you going anywhere with that are nil,” says Perks with derision, pushing a box out of the way to clear some space (it turns out to contain a Celestron Astromaster 130EQ Telescope, kit for the new astronomy GCSE – “Not even Westminster [the public school] offers that,” he laughs.

Read the full article Teaching tech: How coding moved from the bedroom to the classroom

Why are universities getting it so wrong that students have to be re-educated when they enter the workplace? Should all pupils be required to study STEM subjects – physics, chemistry and biology – as separate subjects at GCSE? Please tell us your thoughts in comments or via Twitter ~ Tamsin

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