Neil Barr: Scotland risks being a ‘third-world’ digital nation

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THE BBC hit the nail on the head when its recent technology documentary argued that a lack of computer science teaching was failing pupils and holding the UK back from being a world leader in the industry.

A range of commentators, from industry veteran Ian Livingstone to Google chairman Eric Schmidt, back that view and re-enforced my own opinion on the subject.

While the BBC and Schmidt looked at this issue from a UK perspective, the prospects for the digital economy in Scotland are also very poor.

Schmidt’s argument was that the IT curriculum “focuses on teaching how to use software, but gives no insight into how it’s made”, calling for more science, engineering and maths in school. And he’s right. Quite simply, the future is digital. We are already well behind other economies in this area and Scotland will become a third-world digital economy if we don’t keep up.

I can only surmise universities are not really preparing students for the real world. Many lecturers aren’t being tasked with teaching people how to adapt and learn correctly, they simply cram as much – often out-of-date – knowledge as possible into the students’ heads. The evidence is there for me to see when we ask developer candidates to sit a short problem-solving test. Who’s to blame is less important than how we react now and what level of importance and investment is placed in digital from government down through education and business.

Schools and universities should use agencies and businesses working “at the coal face”. Yes, the nature of degree courses mean there has to be a set curriculum. But, equally, there needs to be a certain amount of freedom given to tutors to adapt and change to new technologies. School students are being taught a computing curriculum that was set in 2005 and involves little in the way of programming.

In a technological field, where things are bound to change at a very fast pace, this is an absolute aberration. Teaching a specific programming language is about as meaningful as buying a child clothes when he’s five and expecting him to wear them all his life.

This goes beyond universities. It is 2011 and computing should be an integral part of everyone’s education, from primary school upwards.

My own business has recruited five staff recently, but the biggest challenge to us remains a limited graduate IT talent pool that is unprepared for the reality of a fast-moving, commercially-driven workplace.

We are making steps in the right direction with measures such as the “Glow” computer network in schools – but not far enough. We need to get more “devices” in the hands of children and let them play with them, tinker with them, take them apart and program them.

I’d also make sure every household, every family, every child has access to a computer and fast internet access. The broadband initiatives are welcome, but aren’t anywhere near far enough. The speeds we are talking about are pitiful.

In Finland, access to broadband is a legal right, while the Asia-Pacific region really understands high-speed broadband and IT-literate employees bring strong economical benefits.

These are the kind of statements of intent of nations serious about their digital economies. I’d like to see Scotland making similar messages: teach more computing in schools and make it compulsory; make sure everyone has access to a computer; invest in super-fast broadband and wi-fi and make sure every home and every business has access; and allow teachers to update curriculums.

Let’s not forget, this is not just about programmers – to survive in this age, almost everyone needs to have a good grounding in computing. Think about what would be possible if we had the most “connected” country, fast access wherever you were, an IT-savvy population and staff that saw digital as a tool to create innovative solutions to everyday problems.

In the same way Scotland wants to become a world leader in green energy, we should be doing the same for digital.

• Neil Barr is the managing director of website design agency Alienation Digital