Educating Digital Britain: Must try harder

The long awaited Digital Britain report has been unleashed upon an expectant IT industry. Media coverage has included phone bills going up to ensure fast downloads in even the most remote regions.

As expected, the government will be standing up for the music industry rather than let market forces impose a new model that may put some out of business. Less has been said about education.

One could be excused for forgetting recent reports of a skills crisis in the profession, and the shortage of students taking IT degrees. It is today's professionals and the future talent that will determine our digital future. The report does give education and research a whole chapter – most welcome - after the handful of pages in the interim report.

Two major issues with how education is covered in the reports are ones of omission rather than commission. For example, little mention was made of developing the professional leadership, aside from a handful of doctoral centres. I am afraid to say that a PhD in itself is not the answer.

The role of the CIO/CTO in transformational IT interventions and how they can be developed and supported deserved discussion.

The issues behind the secondary school ICT curriculum, how it is failing our children and putting off our future IT professionals were also omitted.

The Ofsted report published earlier this year on ICT in schools did not get a mention. The fact that this was damning of current provision doubtless led to its omission. Instead we were treated to a recap of the status quo.

The report reinforces the underlying confusion between the use of IT and what IT professionals do. Digital inclusion correctly demands the former be made available to those who have missed it; but this should not define the baseline in schools.

The opportunity for this report to articulate an exciting and challenging vision for ICT education in schools has been missed.

More worrying is the recommendation that government will set out “how industrial activism and a sectoral focus will be applied in HE”. A positive reading of this is that stronger partnerships will be developed, but it is unclear how this differs from what already happens.

City University London works with e-Skills in its RevitaliseIT programme, and its labour market analyses inform course development. We are not the only university to work with e-Skills in a positive manner.

A darker interpretation is that government is to be more directive in what universities deliver, despite the failure of such interventions in the past. This presents a clear danger that the partnerships that bodies such as e-Skills have worked hard to build up may be compromised: universities guard their independence jealously.

There is an implication of a market failure in what universities provide for their students. I disagree. Courses that fall short of students' aspirations will find that students take their business elsewhere. City University London bucked the trend since 2001 of falling enrollments to computer science degrees largely because of our emphasis on employability. Market forces work.

The most interesting proposal is the recommendation that staff training is required in government IT projects. This is potentially game-changing: implemented correctly it could transform how IT organisations develop their workforce. There is a danger however that costs to SMEs could be prohibitive.

This is one to watch – it builds on recent work in the public sector in developing its IT professionals and is directed at the post-degree development of our profession.

In common with much of the commentary on the Digital Britain report, its lack of ambition in the areas where it is most needed is clear. Time will reveal whether this was a missed opportunity for the nation's digital future.


Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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