In a press release issued by the Caribbean Examinations Council last month, great concern was expressed that too few students are studying Information Technology, and extremely poor results are being achieved. This post suggests reasons why this is the case.
At a recent meeting of the Final Awards Committee for the January 2011 sitting of the Caribbean Secondary Education Certificate (CSEC) examinations, Chairman of the Caribbean Examinations Council (CXC) and Vice Chancellor of the University of the West Indies, Professor E. Nigel Harris, was of the view that too few students are studying Information Technology (IT):
“If the Caribbean is to become globally competitive, all secondary school students should be doing information technology.”
At the January sitting of the CSEC examinations, 30,000 students across the English-speaking Caribbean sat the examinations, but only 800 wrote papers in IT. Further, a review of the examination results over the years indicated that students consistently performed badly in problem solving and database management questions. The Committee was also of the view that more competent teachers of IT are needed to improve examination performance, but persons with the requisite skills tend to find more lucrative employment elsewhere.
The views and concerns expressed by the Final Awards Committee, with respect to IT training and capacity building at the secondary school level, highlight the fact that we as a region might not be as well positioned to be internationally competitive. The Committee noted weak instruction as a major reason for poor student performance, but there are a number of other factors that should be considered with regard to student numbers and performance in IT.
Limited access to PCs. In recent years there has been a concerted effort across the region to computerise secondary schools and establish computer rooms that can be used to facilitate student learning. Although priority might be given to students studying IT, the available facility may have to cater to the entire school population. Hence IT students might have little opportunity outside of designated class times to practice and develop their skills. Moreover, those students might not necessarily have access to PCs outside of school, which again would hinder them developing the skills required to pass the CSEC IT examination.
January versus June examination sitting. In the minds of most schools, the January examinations are not considered official. Moreover, the public at large tends to assess schools based on their May/June results. The January examinations are usually taken by persons who are:
- retaking subjects they failed at an earlier (usually the previous June) sitting
- using that sitting as a preliminary (mock) run to the upcoming June sitting
- taking the examinations privately.
It is therefore not surprising to note that for the May/June 2010 sitting, 25,591 students sat the IT examinations with 81% passes. However, at the January 2011 sitting, only 31.6% of the 800 students who sat that examination secured a passing grade.
IT life skills versus IT as a profession. Although it is fairly obvious, a distinction must be made between computer/IT skills needed for life and those needed to pursue further study. The CSEC examinations are most vital in preparing students for a career and in equipping them with important life skills. On average, students sit at least 5 subjects – the general minimum that must be passed to gain employment. Maths and English are compulsory, so they need to be strategic when choosing their final three subjects. Ultimately the selected subjects might play to their strengths, but they should also help students to position themselves for their future careers.
On the flip side, the average student’s exposure to computers and computing might be quite limited, due to the relatively limited resource that might be available at school. As a result and in this day and age, they still might not be computer literate or demonstrate some proficiency in using common computing applications. Although those persons might not be considering IT as a profession, the education system must still ensure that they develop an ease and proficiency in computing to better prepare them for the current and future demands of our societies.
Job prospects in IT. Finally, many of our fellow Caribbean countries are actively trying to position themselves to establish more knowledge-based societies, consistent with global trends. There is also a desire to be internationally competitive in IT – to attract investment, jobs and to foster national development. However, most students cannot yet see employment prospects in IT in the region, nor do they see the field as well paying.
In that regard, more must be done to create an enabling environment, where work opportunities in IT exist in the region, and there is a demand for those skills. To insist that students pursue professions in IT without employment opportunities being available to them will exacerbate the “brain drain” that has been occurring in the region, which ultimately hinders national development.
In summary, the views of the Final Awards Committee focussed on students preparing for CSEC examinations in IT, but the state of IT capacity in the Caribbean requires broader consideration of the issues and more comprehensive solutions. IT permeates all industries and sectors of the society. As a society, we need people who demonstrate professional competence in IT, but we also need our citizens, especially those currently in our school systems, to develop essential computing skills that will hold them in good stead in all aspects of their lives.