Friday 9 December 2016

Can tech generation stay the course? Computer says... No!

With a third of computer science students dropping out, Joe O'Shea asks if this will hurt our tech-led recovery

Joe O'Shea

Published 17/01/2016 | 02:30

Success: Patrick and John Collison
Success: Patrick and John Collison

It's the glamour sector of our times, offering great careers, exciting opportunities at home and abroad and the chance - if you are good enough - to earn serious money.

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Young Irish people will look to the success stories of people like Limerick brothers Patrick and John Collison - who built online payment system Stripe into a tech company worth over €400m while still in their early twenties - and think, "that could be me".

But the reality is that many young Irish students are falling at the first hurdle, with up to one-third of computer science students across all institutes of technology dropping out during or after their first year.

Drop-out rates for some IT courses are as high as 70pc, according to a report from the Higher Education Authority published this week.

And in individual maths-related courses across third-level education, up to 80pc of students are failing to progress beyond year one.

There are now serious concerns about high and persistent skill shortages across the information and computer technology (ICT) sector.

And while there are various theories as to why so many students are failing, it is clear (as the report from the HEA warns) that many who opt for courses in IT and computer science are simply not prepared - or lack the basic skills and aptitude - to stay the course.

Professor Cormac Sreenan is head of the Department of Computer Science at UCC. He acknowledges that, from the point of view of parents and career guidance teachers, "computers" appears to be buzz sector, the area of our economy where big job announcements are regularly made on the main evening news. But he does not get the impression that school-leavers are being "pushed" into courses because that's where the big money careers are.

"I meet a lot of parents at open days here at UCC and the majority seem to do a very good job in gathering all of the relevant information so they can make an informed decision and give good advice to their kids.

"So, no, I don't think it's a case of young people being pushed into courses.

"But students know computing offers very, very good career prospects - and we certainly get those who take our subject because of that".

Professor Sreenan says one of the main reasons they see drop-outs in first year is simply because "students entering the programme and not really knowing what IT or computing is about".

"They may spend hours every day on their laptop, they are really into apps, very excited about the internet, social media. But they don't really understand the discipline and rigour, the very high standard of maths skills, which you need to apply in terms of studying and becoming an expert on the topic".

It appears many who drop out are shocked by the complexity and deeply technical aspects of computer science - that it is not simply about dreaming up the next Twitter, PayPal or Uber.

"One solution to that is the introduction of computing or IT as a formal subject at second-level. At the very least, it would give students a good idea of what it's all about before they have to make college choices. And I know that is being looked at, for junior cycle, at the moment," says the UCC professor.

Those working in the sector say companies who come to Ireland from Silicon Valley and similar hot-beds of tech culture are often surprised - if not shocked - that Ireland does not have formal computer science modules or courses in second-level education.

They are surprised that the country which gave the world CoderDojo - and places so much faith in tech as the engine to drive our recovery - is not teaching its schoolkids the basics in formal, national modules or courses.

Dermot Daly is the CEO and founder of Tapadoo - a small but successful Dublin-based app developer which includes the likes of McDonald's, DHL and Bank of Ireland amongst its clients.

Dermot says most companies in the sector are struggling to find Irish graduates to fill jobs. And he believes Irish colleges are finding it hard to attain the flexibility needed to keep pace with a rapidly evolving sector.

"In a way, it's not the colleges who are at fault, because things go in and out of fashion very quickly in this sector. And if suddenly everybody is talking about cloud computing or app development, you can't just magic up a college course over-night," he says.

"It's the basic building blocks that are important. I'm not doing stuff I did in college 25 years ago. But I am using the fundamentals I learnt.

"However, you have to have the aptitude and the right stuff to do it. Just having a load of points is not enough. Some people find it mind-numbingly boring, some really exciting.

"You have kids that say they want to be games designers, because they play games on their laptops all day. There's an understanding gap, where they just don't get what's involved."

Dermot says that is where resources like CoderDojo - and the proposed formal modules in schools - will be hugely valuable.

"Coding should be a formal subject at second level. I've reviewed the proposed 40-hour module for the junior cycle and it's quite good. It'll be a start. At least it will give a kid a chance to find out if they like it, or hate it. Better they do six months of it in school rather than sign up for three years in college and then find out it's really not for them.

"And whatever sector you are working in, in the future, coding, computer science is going to come into it somewhere, these are basic skills all kids need to have."

The Tapadoo CEO also has some practical advice for Leaving Cert students (and their parents) who are thinking about computer courses.

"There are tonnes of great, free online resources for teaching yourself to code. The likes of Code School, Node School, loads. Just Google them, sign up, take the courses, see if you like it. It's a great, free way to find out if coding and computer science is for you, before you sign up for a college course."

Amidst the talk of shocking drop-out rates and a growing skills gap - there are some signs that the next generation are going to be even more tech savvy than those now struggling in college.

Mari Cahalane has organised the BT Young Scientist and Technology Exhibition since 2001, and says they have seen an "exponential increase" in the number of young Irish schoolkids getting involved. "In 2001 we had 616 entrants. Last year it was 2,048," she says.

"In computing, I don't think you can over estimate the impact the CoderDojo movement has had. It's been brilliant for getting so many young people involved and comfortable with computers and coding. Now it would be great to see that kind of programme introduced as a formal school subject, possibly as a module in transition year."

Mari says computers and IT are popular areas for projects. But they also tend to follow topical trends.

"This year, we are expecting to get a lot on flooding".

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