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Attracting “Digital Natives” to ICT

by: Vicki MacLeod, Consultant

March 4, 2013 - 05:41 PM

WISENET (Women in ICTs Shared Excellence Network) is the International Bureau’s convening platform that aims to leverage the experience, resources and connections of the international Information and Communications Technology (ICT) community to better the situation of women, their communities and their countries. As part of this work, the FCC has invited prominent women and men in technology from around the world to post blogs sharing their experiences.

It is ironic that in today’s digital economy it is becoming more and more difficult to attract and retain students in traditional ICT course studies. So, just as ICT skills are becoming a fundamental part of our economy, young people, especially young women, are shunning formal computer science studies in favor of what are perceived to be ‘sexier’ science subjects like forensics or genetics. A 2012 report by an industry group in Australia put the existing shortage of skilled ICT professionals  in that country at approximately 8,500, while the European Commission has estimated that Europe will suffer a shortage of 700,000 ICT professionals by 2015.

So what is going on? Why has ICT lost its attraction for the generation of so-called digital natives, whose lives revolve around their smartphones, Facebook pages, and tweets?

Many studies have found that the ICT curriculum itself is one of the key reasons that students are no longer interested in a formal ICT education. The argument is that the curriculum has not kept pace with the skills and knowledge of the students, who tend to view keyboard based coding exercises with the same enthusiasm as a piano student views scales and arpeggios – necessary in the long-term perhaps, but in the short-term boring and repetitive.

Perhaps we could  borrow from the Suzuki method of teaching music  –  incorporating the study of ICT into the overall learning environment and making it part of every subject, including math, science, history, geography and languages -- to demonstrate the relevance and ubiquity of ICT. A 2012 review by the U.K. Government found that Britain’s ICT curriculum no longer met the current needs of today’s student body. As a result, although schools are still required to teach ICT as part of the national curriculum, teachers have now been given the freedom and flexibility to design an ICT curriculum that is best suited for their pupils.

The premise that ICT curricula should be updated to make it more relevant to the lives of today’s students is not universally held by all stakeholders. There are those who see a continuing need for “pure” computer science untainted by what some see as the passing fashions of the day, such as mobile apps.

Personally, I view the issue in terms of the different skill levels required of “mechanics” and “drivers”. While most people learn to drive, few drivers actually know how to delve under the hood, let alone rebuild an engine from scratch. No one can deny that the ICT industry still needs plenty of “mechanics” who can write code and develop systems architecture from scratch. But the failure to attract sufficient numbers of students to the traditional curriculum offers an opportunity to rethink our approach. For those students who are not attracted to formal computer science as such, we should be focusing more on showing them how they can use ICT to build solutions for today’s real world issues – in health, life sciences or the environment, for example – as a first step to attracting them to more formal ICT education in the future.

Updated: March 4, 2013 - 04:44 PM
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