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Why tech success rates have turned around

High dropout figures from ICT courses are dated, writes Katherine Donnelly


John Dunnion, Associate Professor at the UCD School of Computer Science. Photo: Steve Humphreys

John Dunnion, Associate Professor at the UCD School of Computer Science. Photo: Steve Humphreys

John Dunnion, Associate Professor at the UCD School of Computer Science. Photo: Steve Humphreys

Recent headlines about high dropout rates in technology courses probably caused a wobble among some students currently considering their CAO choices.

There are graduate jobs aplenty out there right across the STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) spectrum, and they are very well paid. But are they only for a select band of maths geniuses?

The figures came from a Higher Education Authority (HEA) report on college completion rates.

What jumped out was that, 10 years on, 45pc of those who started a technology course in 2007/08 never graduated from that college. It was by far the highest non-completion rate over the same period for any discipline.

When John Dunnion, Associate Professor of Computer Science in UCD, heard the headlines on morning radio, he started shaking his head. His wife asked him why. "It is all so out of date," he replied.

He says the data were "old in the context of developments that have happened since the 2007/08 era. In terms of computer science, 10 years is a lifetime".

A lot has changed since 2007/08.

In 2010, a University of Limerick report highlighted how 48pc of maths teachers were not qualified in the subject. Many would have been business or science teachers stepping into the breach caused by a shortage of qualified maths teachers. It triggered a major upskilling programme for teachers of maths.

A new second-level curriculum, Project Maths, was introduced and the arrival of bonus points for 'honours' maths, in 2012, has seen a doubling of uptake in the subject at higher level. Students are not all achieving top grades - they all don't need to - but they are stretching themselves and building the critical-thinking and computational skills for the sort of maths learning required in technology and other STEM courses.

For a student sitting the Leaving Cert in 2007, their experience of a computer class was probably learning how to use programs like Word and Excel, which, while both useful and necessary, are not a foundation for STEM study.

Today's students are digital natives and, given the chance, will write their own computer programs.

The school curriculum has lagged behind, but extra-curricular activities and initiatives outside the classroom, such as the volunteer-led computer programming club, Coderdojo, draw legions of young enthusiasts. Industry-led initiatives in schools are moving beyond coding to robotics.

The annual BT Young Scientist and Technology Exhibition and the more recent (launched 2008) Scifest competitions for second-level students produce winners that bring home gold and silver from international contests.

Coding is now available as a short course at junior cycle and a recent report on its first year, in a limited number of schools, noted a "very high" level of student interest and engagement.

So, overall, no lack of appetite among students for what does lay groundwork for future study in technology.

The phasing in of computer science as a Leaving Cert subject will build on those developments.

Change at third-level has been more rapid.

Dunnion can only speak for UCD, but the evolution in teaching and learning in computer science he describes reflects a wider narrative about a transformed ICT landscape on campuses. He recalls that CAO points required for entry to UCD's computer science course were low from 2003-2009, ranging between 300 and 320. After 2009, they started to rise and now hover around 470-480. That is key, as a standout finding from the HEA research was a direct correlation between entry points and progression in college.

In 2010, UCD made significant changes to its computer science degree programme. He says the curriculum is very agile, with greater emphasis on practical aspects of programming and more maths modules, which increases students' capabilities in problem-solving.

Maths support centres are now commonplace in third level and, across the sector, there is greater use of teaching and learning methodologies that allow for a more interactive experience between students and lecturers.

UCD has also opened a drop-in computer programming support centre, along the lines of maths support centres. According to Dunnion, among the 2014 entrants to its four-year BSc Computer Science course, who graduated in 2018, the rate of non-completion was 17pc - an enormous improvement on the 2007 entrants. He says rates for the following years fall down to 4pc "but we can't compare like-for-like until these reach their graduations'.

Completion rates have improved at a time when student numbers on the course have grown. Increasing intake often brings a weakening in points, but in this case, the reverse is true. In 2018, UCD admitted 124 students to the BSc Computer Science on a minimum of 477 points.

A CAO breakdown of demand for next autumn shows, on average, a healthy five per cent increase in applications for honours degree technology courses, and much higher for some. The uplift suggests some critical thinking on the part of students.

Irish Independent