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Jul 26 2011

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Is our education system hindering IT innovation in the region?

This post explores whether the primary and secondary school system in the English-speaking Caribbean could be hampering IT/ICT investment and innovation in the region.

In recent months, technology innovation has been identified as a key driver for building and sustaining economic growth, and to ensure long-term job creation(Time). However, there is a growing concern that even if those jobs are available, today’s children or even current university students are not equipped for innovation-driven jobs in the ICT/technology fields.

One of the greatest culprits in this situation appears to be the education system. In a recent BBC article, concerns were expressed that “schools and universities are not teaching basic programming skills that underpin some of Britain’s most successful industries”, and that children were becoming “digitally illiterate”.

Although we in the Caribbean might not consider ourselves in the league of developed countries, innovation, and specifically creating an enabling environment for innovation, will become increasingly critical to maintaining any comparative advantage we have over other developing countries. Importantly, many of the IT/ICT jobs created in the Caribbean by foreign investment are towards the lower end of the value chain, and similar to the US and UK, we must ask whether our education system could be hindering ICT/IT investment and innovation in the region?

Computer programming at the secondary school level

At secondary (high) schools, the subject that best prepares students for computer programming, is the Caribbean Secondary Education Certificate (CSEC) IT syllabus. The subject is offered at the General Proficiency level only, which means that it is geared toward giving students a comprehensive grounding for further academic study.

The IT syllabus is organised into eight main sections, and has been designed to start from the basics – Fundamentals of Hardware and Software, through to creating simple spreadsheets, databases and presentations. Approximately 160 hours should be allocated for the course over a 2-year period, which should comprise both class and practical work. At the end of the studies, the examinations consist of three parts: two set papers worth 70% of the overall grade, and a continuous assessment component worth 30%.

Figure 1: Suggested time allocations for the various sections of the IT syllabus (Source: CXC)

The Caribbean Examinations Council (CXC) suggest that around 35% of the allocated time be used to learn Problem Solving, Programme Design and Programme Implementation (Figure 1). During this activity, students are required to master relatively basic skills, and a considerable amount of time is spent on theory, with practical exercises supporting the class work.

The recommended programming language is Pascal, which is a highly structured language. Although powerful, in terms of the complexity of programmes that can be created, Pascal has numerous rules and syntax structures that must be learned and used for even the most simple of programming tasks.

Contrary to this approach, at the university level there is a hesitancy to use highly structured programming languages, like Pascal and C, to introduce computer programming to students. When learning to programme, it is considered more important for students to develop the capability to break down activities and to organise them into programmable tasks. This skill can only be developed through extensive practise, and could be hindered or even undermined if, from the beginning, students are overwhelmed by programming syntax and rules. This is one of the reasons why powerful yet simpler programmes, such as Python and even Basic, are usually recommended for novice programmers.

Learning across the education system

Similar to most education systems, primary and secondary schools in the English-speaking Caribbean are highly structured. The syllabi are set and the emphasis is on formal, written examinations to assess students’ learning. Although formal examinations are important, they do not necessarily encourage creativity and innovation. Further, due their significance to students’ continued advancement, and as a reflection on their schools, the focus tends to be on preparing them to pass examinations and not necessarily encouraging learning, creativity, critical thinking, independent thought and self reliance.

These views are not targeted only at secondary schools. Primary schools are perhaps even guiltier of just preparing students for examinations, especially with regard to the Common Entrance (Grade 6) Examinations. These examinations are widely considered to be the most pivotal in a child’s academic life. Although there might be sufficient places available in secondary schools for all students sitting that examination, competition is often intense for a few highly coveted seats at the more prestigious schools. As a result, primary school tuition tends to be geared towards intensive study in order to pass those critical Grade 6 examinations.

Fearlessness versus conformity

As it pertains to computer programing skills development in the Caribbean, the CSEC IT curriculum, and its programming component in particular, is rudimentary at best. Moreover, the approach to teaching ICT and programming may be a deterrent to pupils advancing in these areas, and opting instead for alternative careers. For those who are working as programmers and application developers, it is likely that they honed their skills outside of the classroom, in addition to whatever studies they might have undertaken at the college/university level.

Further, since the focus throughout the entire education system is on formal, written examinations, students often are not taught to be creative or innovative. Those skills require fostering a certain freedom of thought, encouraging ideas and exploration of those ideas. They cannot necessarily be taught as subjects on their own, but should be incorporated as tools used (or skills developed) during the learning process.

Hence, when students are being taught primarily “to pass examinations”, inherently, they are being taught to conform. This in turn is reflected in the extent to which persons are prepared to become entrepreneurs – to take a chance on an idea – as opposed to solely relying on others for gainful employment. It also speaks to the extent to which countries are equipped to properly harness technology and ICT, since creativity is a true indicator of mastery.

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About the author

Michele Marius

Michele Marius has a wealth of experience in the telecoms and ICT space, which has been gained in the Caribbean, Southeast Asia and the South Pacific, and in the public and private sectors. She is the Editor and Publisher of ICT Pulse.

Permanent link to this article: http://www.ict-pulse.com/2011/07/is-our-education-system-hindering-it-innovation-in-the-region/

4 comments

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  1. Stuart King

    Before I comment on the question of whether our education system is hindering IT innovation in the region, let me take this opportunity to complain (ok, rant) about the CSEC IT course.

    I have never taken this course myself (thank goodness) but judging from the study guides that are published in the newspapers, this course requires far too much memorization of useless, outdated, and sometimes misleading or just incorrect, information. I am worried that all of this memorization will unnecessarily turn off students, and give them a bad wrong impression of the subject.

    Anyway, to get back to the question at hand. I would say that the subject that best prepares students for success in IT (and success in programming) is English. Another important subject would be Mathematics, but English is so much more important. So in my opinion, critical to the promotion of IT innovation in the region, is a literate and numerate workforce (entrepreneurial training probably wouldn’t hurt either).

    1. Michele Marius

      Hi Stuart,

      Thanks for the comment. While I think have some means of assessing performance is important, I am truly worried about the effect of memorization and the pressure to pass exams…

      The importance of Maths and English really cannot be overstated. Actually, the penny fell for me a few day ago when I fully realised that in this day and age, children might no longer need to learn how to write (physically) – it is perhaps more valuable for them to know their way around a keyboard… Scary!!

  2. Nipha

    hi Ya,
    Interesting article. having taught the subject both here in and in the UK and also worked for CXC I feel the need to comment. While in UK their system is to blame for the shortfall in the Caribbean I think the syllabus is fairly balanced. However as you both have highlighted English and mathematics are key components to substantial success in the subject. These key components are lacking.
    Another issue that we need to identify is the ability (or lack thereof) of the teachers of these subjects.
    The use of Pascal as an introductory subject while we agree is outdated does establish the basics for programming. if you have this basic foundation you a more likely to be able to manage the more modern ones.
    Oh dear me who wrote this article. It is very interesting and deep for me. I like it.

    1. Michele Marius

      Thanks for the comment. Hopefully the powers that be at CXC will take heed.

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