Tag Archives: Digital Wales

Today’s “University View” column in the Western Mail

This is the short article I wrote for the University View column in today’s Western Mail:

Technology is arguably the biggest lever on our lives, affecting everything from the way we communicate, do business, shop, travel, access information and are entertained. Our dependence on digital infrastructure is increasing all the time; from the demand for high-bandwidth Internet connectivity through to the devices we carry in our pockets. We truly live in a computational world, glued together by software.

But the real question is: do we direct technology, or do we let ourselves be directed by it and those who have mastered it? “Choose the former,” writes author Douglas Rushkoff, “and you gain access to the control panel of civilisation. Choose the latter, and it could be the last real choice you get to make”; in essence: program or be programmed.

So why do we have an seemingly antiquated perspective of technology education, primarily focusing on developing increasingly transient IT user skills, rather than equipping young people with a deeper understanding of how technology works, on how to solve problems with technology, on programming and computational thinking skills? Why are we not developing a generation of digital creators, empowered to make, break and manipulate their digital world, rather than a generation who are becoming consumers of technology?

This is a question I have been asking repeatedly over the past couple of years. Last year I co-chaired the Welsh Government’s review of the ICT curriculum, in light of significant reform across the rest of the UK. From September, there will be a new compulsory subject called Computing replacing ICT in England from aged five onwards, focusing on computer science, programming and computational thinking: “A high-quality computing education equips pupils to use computational thinking and creativity to understand and change the world.” Precisely so.

We are currently in the midst of a significant review of education in Wales, asking fundamental questions about what education should achieve for young people. Alongside this we have long term policy evolving around skills, identifying the types of skills we require to create a healthy and prosperous society that is economically secure but also agile and adaptable to changing industries and sectors. While I recognise it is important that we take stock of where we are in Wales and identify the most appropriate solutions to some of our educational problems, it seems bizarre that we are delaying on what appears to be a no-brainer: making digital skills and computing education a core part of our curriculum. It is not a question of rushing into solutions, or copying other countries — this is about creating aspirations for our young people, developing future-proof skills and global competitiveness. I am baffled that we still have to justify why they should be core for all. We should turn the question around: can anyone justify why we shouldn’t make computing a core part of the curriculum?

Ultimately it comes down to what we want a future Wales to look like. Do we want to be a knowledge economy, leveraging our culture and being innovative and creative with technology? The Welsh Government have identified a number of priority sectors for economic renewal, alongside significant investment in our science and engineering research base, as well as recognising the broader societal and economic importance of e-infrastructure, connectivity and digital inclusion. All of these are predicated on having a country and citizenry with high-value digital and computational skills. It currently remains to be seen if we can deliver a digital Wales.

 
(N.B. text published in the print copy of the paper may differ slightly due to copy-editing)

Tagged , , ,

2014 IET South Wales Annual Lecture

On Thursday 20th March I will be giving the 2014 IET South Wales Annual Lecture at Swansea University:

Computing: Enabling a Digital Wales

Digital technology (and thus computation) is an indispensable and crucial component of our lives, society and environment. In a world increasingly dominated by technology, we now need to be more than just digitally literate. Across science and engineering, computing has moved on from assisting researchers in doing science, to transforming both how science is done and what science is done. In the context of (Welsh and UK) Government science, technology and innovation policy, computer scientists (of all flavours) have a significant role to play. Tom will ground this hypothesis by describing his research interests at the hardware/software interface, his broader work in education and science policy, and then finishing by presenting a vision for a “Digital Wales” underpinned by science and technology innovation.

 
This talk is free, with registration online.

Tagged , , ,

Policy Statement on Skills by the Welsh Government

Ken Skates AM, the Welsh Government’s Deputy Minister for Skills, has today unveiled a Policy Statement on Skills — a ten year plan “to help Wales evolve into a highly-skilled nation and create the conditions that businesses need to grow and flourish”, setting out the steps that need to be taken “to develop a resilient, responsive and sustainable post-19 skills system”.

The statement covers four priority areas for the Welsh Government:

  • Skills for jobs and growth: Focuses on how Wales can stimulate demand for a more highly-skilled society that can drive forward our economy in the pursuit of jobs and growth.
  • Skills that respond to local needs: Describes how Wales must develop a skills system which reflects the needs of local communities, including providing a streamlined and accessible employment and skills offer for both individuals and employers.
  • Skills that employers value: Recognises the importance of engaging employers to participate in the skills system and describes the level of co-investment needed alongside government if Wales is to remain competitive.
  • Skills for employment: Explores the role of the skills system in providing the employment support necessary to assist individuals into employment and to progress in work, both of which are central to our tackling poverty agenda in Wales.

From my perspective, digital skills should be front and centre in this new policy, both to ensure we have safe and confident digital citizens (see Delivering a Digital Wales), as well as to encourage the development of high-level skills for the Welsh Government’s priority sectors over the next ten years. This also links back last October’s review of the ICT curriculum in Wales, as well as the work of the UK Digital Skills Taskforce.

It will be interesting to see how this develops over the coming months; download the full policy statement [PDF].

Tagged , , , ,

2011 CAS Wales/Technocamps Conference

On Friday 1st July 2011, Computing At School (CAS) Wales, in partnership with the Technocamps project, hosted their inaugural conference at Swansea University. The aim of this one-day conference, with the tagline Computing at School: Enhancing the STEM Curriculum for a Digital Wales, was to provide teachers, senior management teams, examination boards, higher education academics, industry and education policymakers with a forum to highlight and discuss the important issues surrounding Computer Science education in Wales.

It featured keynotes talks from:

  • Jeff Cuthbert AM, Deputy Minister for Skills, Welsh Government
  • Gary Stone, Head of Strategy & Operations for Digital Wales, Welsh Government
  • David Davies, Director of NHS Engagement, NHS Wales
  • Clare Riley, Group Manager, Education Relations, Microsoft
  • Professor Roger Boyle, Computing At School

Over 100 attendees participated in a wide range of workshops and policy panels to discuss curriculum and qualifications, as well as sharing best practice for teaching Computer Science. This event was the culmination of nearly a year of discussions on education and science policy, focusing on the strategic importance of Computer Science within the wider STEM agenda [1,2,3,4,5] and was widely reported in the media [1,2,3,4]. A Storify of the event is also available.

CAS Wales 2011 Wordle

This successful event has highlighted the importance of Computer Science, from an educational, scientific and economic perspective, and has laid the foundation for future curriculum and qualifications reform in Wales.

CAS Wales and Technocamps will continue to work together in 2012 to drive forward this agenda.


(N.B. this blog post was moved from its original location, having been first published in August 2011))

Tagged , , , , , , , , ,

Technology and innovation in Wales

In October, Iain Gray (CEO of the Technology Strategy Board), ahead of a visit to Wales, compiled a list of 50 high-technology and innovation-led businesses and organisation across North and South Wales; I made a Storify of the tweets before I found his blog post.

The Welsh Government has identified six nine priority sectors in which to support industry-led investment as part of Economic Renewal: A New Direction:

  • Creative Industries
  • Information, Communication and Technology (ICT)
  • Energy and Environment
  • Advanced Materials and Manufacturing
  • Life Sciences
  • Financial and Professional Services
  • Food and Farming
  • Construction
  • Tourism

The list correlates to the first five of these priority sectors — it is in no particular order, and there are, of course, many businesses not included. Nevertheless, it is interesting to see the diverse range of innovation and high-value R&D in Wales across these five sectors, highlighting that there is a strong underpinning research base from Welsh universities, along with investment from both government and industry (but clearly more is needed). I have particular interest in the composition of this list due to the importance of the ICT sector (with its associated key priorities): I sit on the Welsh Government’s Strategy Group for the Digital Wales Research Hub, which aims to develop organisational and funding strategies to complement the RCUK Digital Economy Programme. The Hub will bring together industry, universities and funding bodies to facilitate the delivery of open, innovative and collaborative R&D related to the Digital Economy; creation of the Hub is a cornerstone of the Welsh Government’s Delivering a Digital Wales agenda.

More information about the Digital Wales Research Hub to follow in early 2012!

Tagged , , , , , , , , ,

Science and the Assembly 2011

I have been invited to speak at Science and the Assembly 2011, an annual event organised by the Royal Society of Chemistry, designed to develop closer links between the scientific community in Wales, the National Assembly for Wales and the Welsh Assembly Government.

I’m one of six invited speakers from across academia and industry, as well as the WAG Chief Scientific Advisor, Professor John Harries, on themes heralded by the International Year of Chemistry. However, I will be subverting the theme somewhat by discussing the importance of Computing to Wales, highlighting how it underpins modern scientific research and where it sits within the STEM agenda:

Computing: Enabling a Digital Wales

The strategic importance of the provision of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) subjects, as well as their contribution to the Welsh and wider UK economy has been frequently discussed, but there appears to be a fundamental misunderstanding with where Computing and related disciplines sit within the STEM portfolio. It should be regarded as the quintessential STEM subject, involving scientific enquiry, engineering design and mathematical foundations, as well as embodying deeper computational thinking, problem-solving and analytical skills.

In December 2010, the Welsh Assembly Government outlined a framework for Delivering a Digital Wales, a wide-ranging strategy to reflect the importance digital technologies now play in our lives, touching upon virtually every strand of public and private sector activity. Hence, being able to innovate with technology will be a crucial part of the future economic strength of Wales. And therein lies the importance and relevance of Computing education: it is imperative that there is a clear strategy for Computing in Wales that distinguishes it from “digital literacy”, recognising it as a core discipline that underpins modern scientific research.

This is a well-timed event considering the recent Assembly elections, so I hope there is a strong turnout from both newly elected Assembly Members and policymakers.

The seventh annual Science and the Assembly takes place in Cardiff Bay on Tuesday 24th May 2011 at the Pierhead Building and the Senedd; registration is online.

Tagged , , , , ,

Computing: Enabling a Digital Wales?

A few weeks ago I was invited to write a blog post for the Campaign for Science & Engineering (CaSE), discussing science policy issues relating to the impending devolved elections in Wales. Since I now have my own blog, I thought I would repost it here and keep an eye on any science policy developments over the next month or so in the lead up to the elections on 5th May:

CaSE logo

Computing: Enabling a Digital Wales?

In December 2010, the Welsh Assembly Government outlined a framework for Delivering a Digital Wales, a wide-ranging strategy to reflect the importance digital technologies now play in our lives, touching virtually every strand of public and private sector activity. The WAG Economic Renewal Programme further reinforced the importance of ICT/Digital Economy as one of the six priority sectors for economic renewal.

Deputy Minister for Science, Innovation and Skills, Lesley Griffiths said at the Digital Wales launch:

The growth of our economy and the well-being of our citizens are now inexorably linked to advances in technology. We must be prepared to respond quickly to new opportunities and challenges that rapid technological change will continue to bring.

While substantial inroads in developing the infrastructure for a digital economy in Wales have been made, there is still a long way to go. A third of the adult population in Wales do not use the Internet, less than 40% of Welsh SMEs actually sell online and one in six Welsh employers consider the IT skills of their employees insufficient.

Large-scale ICT infrastructure improvements, including the roll-out of superfast broadband across parts of Wales, the funding of High Performance Computing Wales and even Improving Care through ICT for Health in Wales, have created a strong platform to support the proposed Digital Wales plan, but what about the strategic development of the required technically-skilled workforce? Emphasis has been placed on broadening and deepening the skills base in Wales, but is this being done in the right areas?

Understanding Computing

The strategic importance of the provision of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) subjects and careers and their contribution to the UK economy has been frequently discussed, but there appears to be a fundamental misunderstanding with where Computing and related disciplines sit within the STEM portfolio. Furthermore, there are a number of questions about how Computing is taught in schools across the UK; in essence, it isn’t. As in England, most schools in Wales teach ICT (Information & Communication Technology) rather than Computing. Unfortunately, ICT invariably consists solely of teaching how to use office productivity software such as word processors and spreadsheets. This is creating a generation of technology consumers (the “PowerPoint generation”), who do not have any deep comprehension of the technologies they are using beyond a superficial application-focused understanding. Futhermore, it is disengaging students who mistakenly believe that this is what Computing as a discipline (or potential career) is actually about.

A part of the Digital Wales agenda is focused on equipping people to become digital citizens; one facet of this is educating children so that by the time they become adults they are capable of making a valuable contribution to the digital society and economy. And therein lies the importance and relevance of Computing education; schools should equip every child with the basic understanding of how computers work and with the technological capabilities to take part in a knowledge-based society and economy. By spectacularly failing to do this, there is a serious problem.

Part of this is perhaps to do with terminology: Computing is not just about computers (as per Edsger W. Dijkstra’s famous quote: “Computer science is no more about computers than astronomy is about telescopes.”); it embodies deeper computational thinking, problem-solving and analytical skills. In some ways, it is the quintessential STEM subject, involving scientific enquiry, engineering design and mathematical foundations.

Positive Steps

The importance of the creative industries in Wales (including recent funding for West Wales and the Valleys) demonstrates that being able to innovate with technology is a crucial part of the future economic strength of Wales. Not having the skilled workforce or graduates to supply this future demand would be disastrous. However, there are a number of recently announced initiatives that are addressing this lack of strategic focus on Computing education and training.

The announcement in February 2011 of £6m funding over three years for the Technocamps project was a huge step forward; it aims to encourage young people in Wales to follow in the footsteps of successful technologists and entrepreneurs by inspiring them to study Computing-based topics underpinning and aligned with the STEM subjects. Over 2,600 pupils from across the Convergence area of Wales will get the chance to develop their technical skills and gain an insight into the wide range of Computing-related careers open to them.

Technocamps is further supported by the announcement in October 2010 of 13m investment over five years for Software Alliance Wales (SAW), which will boost the growth and competitiveness of the strategically important digital technology sector. One priority of SAW is to increase higher-level ICT skills across all business and industry sectors. Complementary funding was also announced in 2010 for the National Science Academy and STEM Cymru to ensure Wales has a continuous pipeline of people graduating from colleges and universities with the appropriate qualifications and skills.

But there is still significant work to be done; Computing at School (CAS), a membership association formally supported by BCS, The Chartered Institute for IT, is actively working in Wales in partnership with the Technocamps project to support and promote the teaching of Computing in Wales and stimulate curriculum change. The widely reported Royal Society review into Computing in Schools, along with its importance and implications for the economic and scientific strength of the UK, is due in November 2011. A national debate on subjects in Wales announced in February 2011 by Leighton Andrews, Deputy Minister for Children, Education and Lifelong Learning, to discuss the future of A-level and vocational subjects in Wales, will hopefully recognise the importance of Computing in supporting future economic growth and enabling a Digital Wales. In England, the Department of Education review of the National Curriculum has restarted a similar debate; Scotland has already included Computing as part of its Curriculum of Excellence. It would be extraordinary if Wales did not do the same.

(A related article has been written by Dr Bill Mitchell, Director of the BCS Academy of Computing, the learned society dedicated to advancing computing as an academic discipline: The Collapse of Computing Education in English Schools)

Tagged , , , , , , ,
Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 349 other followers