Future proofing computer training

By Adam Gifford

Preparing next generation of software engineers and developers demands radical shift in thinking.

Teachers can now teach at secondary school level how computing works. Photo / File
Teachers can now teach at secondary school level how computing works. Photo / File

At the start of the academic year, thousands of students around the country opened their texts in computer science, information systems and other technology related courses.

But are they learning the right things to be useful to employers in a fast-changing field?

Manas Kumar from Auckland firm Optimizer HQ, which makes cloud-based apps such as email marketing tool Maxmail and payment processing software Swipe, doesn't think so.

He points to New Zealand's sixth placing in the Asia Pacific Cloud Readiness Index as evidence the country is slipping behind.

Kumar says a radical shift in thinking is needed when it comes to training the next generation of software engineers and developers.

"At the academic level in New Zealand, I think there is still a lot of emphasis on theory. It's important to know theory, but they need to have at least a basic understanding of the commercial world as well," he says.

Professor Tim Bell, deputy head of Canterbury University's computer science and software engineering department, says universities and polytechs all now run internship programmes or other ways to link with industry, with the result many students never come on the market because they get snapped up before they graduate.

And the radical shift Kumar is looking for happened in 2011 at secondary school level where, after years of pressure from teachers and tertiary institutions, the Education Ministry adopted a new curriculum.

Instead of making schools teach students how to use computers (meaning courses in Microsoft Office programs), teachers can now teach how computing works.

"Until a couple of years ago, what we were teaching in schools was putting students off computer science," Bell says. "Now students can get a taste of what it is really about. They can learn about programming, algorithms, encryption, artificial intelligence, coding. These are technical topics that require work on mathematics. Kids get interested."

But the ministry has not followed up by training teachers. Instead private-sector employers such as Google and Orion Healthcare have stepped up with funding for courses.

Bell worked with the Association for Computing, Digital and Information Technology Teachers (http://nzacditt.org.nz/) to lobby for the change and create resources such as an online field guide for teaching computer science (http://www.cosc.canterbury.ac.nz/csfieldguide/).

He says the changes are making New Zealand a leader, with Britain now also on a similar path of encouraging widespread digital literacy.

Part of the challenge is to break some of the stereotypes about computing being for geeky, nerdy kids, antisocial kids, or just for boys. "It's actually a very social profession. You need good skills to collaborate. When you talk to these people they are really intelligent and well rounded.

"Employers also find women work well, because it is a social job, listening to customers and solving their problems."

Professor Robert Amor, the head of computer science at Auckland University, says his department will introduce accelerator courses to meet the needs of students coming in under the new curriculum, rather than having to start from square one.

"With the new NCEA level three, we will be able to start halfway in. We can make it more challenging and interesting for the better students."

Amor rejects suggestions that institutions are failing to teach the skills the industry needs.

"People teaching computer science are by nature excited by technology. We are always bringing in new technologies and research."

At the same time there is an inherent conservatism about passing on the core skill of telling a machine what to do. "We teach Java, but the fundamentals of programming are the same. If students understand them, they should be able to pick up any language."

Amor, whose own research interests include large-scale software architecture, says cloud computing brings together a lot of existing elements, which are all in the current curriculum.

Across the road at AUT University the associate dean of research at the school of industry and development, Tony Clear, says a big challenge for institutions is lifting students to tertiary standard in maths and science.

With the Government targeting placements in science, technology, engineer and maths, that means catch up. "We try to bridge it with remedial six-month or one-year courses.

"It's a structural problem in the education system. The model of education we have is consumer choice, and students are not always best informed so they choose easy stuff rather than hard stuff."

Clear says tertiary institutions have evolved to meet whatever technology can throw their way.

"We would like to think we offer an academically credible and rigorous programme that produces graduates who are prepared for the industry today and tomorrow.

"You can produce people who are ready for today and not tomorrow. If we can teach students to learn how to learn, we have done our job."

- NZ Herald

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