Computer Science education producing junk; My few suggestions

Computer Science education producing junk

Computer Science – by quick definition, a scientific and practical approach to computation and its applications –in reality, is a cosmic stream. From feasibility to structure, from expression to algorithms, there is a Vulcan-like logical component out there for each and every student in Pakistan.

To find them, our young minds must be exposed to the subject at the right time, in the right manner, by the right teacher.

Approximately 445,000 students graduate each year from our universities, but only 10,000 Computer Science graduates are among them.

Some 1.3 million Indian Institutes of Technology Computer Science students take a standard assessment exam every year, but a mere 40,000 are able to pass the intermediate exam in Computer Science (ICS) here. Many enter the Information Technology (IT) sector without further proficiency testing.

The IT sector includes software development, and it is expanding rapidly throughout our symbolic and literal digital world. With neighbor India sitting in the catbird seat when it comes to software exports; Pakistan should take stock of its rank at No. 20.

On our side of the border, investing in IT too often has meant investing in grandiose efforts, such as buildings like those found at Arfa Software Technology Park in Lahore, or investing in bureaucratic machines such as the Pakistan Information Technology Board (PITB).

Both have failed miserably when they had the opportunity to add a valuable vertebra –meaning enhanced secondary education; particularly in the area of computer science — to the deteriorating backbone of our proud homeland.

Today, a growing majority of our students are selecting Computer Science as an elective, forgoing Biology and Economics. They believe – based on the worldwide Information Technology boom –the former will provide them with a better career trajectory.

The Pakistan Social and Living Standards Measurement Survey (PSLM 2015) shows the percentage of students who opt for Computer Science over Biology at the secondary level is 62 percent. While only 28.2 percent of students who enroll at primary level reach the secondary mark, their tilt toward Computer Science to such an extent is remarkable.

This interest should be used as to boost the technology and software sector, but because of poorly designed curriculums, the anticipated benefits and rewards have turned into a nightmare of barely computer-literate job seekers.

As much as it pains me to say, they dream big but lack the skills of their Indian counterparts and other sophisticated minds who are proudly living their Silicon Valley dreams.

A deeper dive into a particularly appropriate area of our country’s secondary Computer Science curriculum shows the following components:

Level (IX-X) – Grade 9th-10th

  1. Introduction to Computer
  2. Computer Components
  3. Input-Output Devices
  4. Storage Devices
  5. Computer Software;
  6. Introduction to Windows XP
  7. Word Processing (MS Word 97)
  8. Data Representation
  9. Boolean Algebra
  10. Problem Solving
  11. Input / Output Statements
  12. Control Statements
  13. Arrays
  14. Sub-Program
  15. Graphics in Basic
  16. Problem Solving

While the 2016 secondary school curriculum — with Windows XP and MS Office 97 – may appear impressive to some, in reality, the student under the umbrella of Computer Science find their endeavors have very little or nothing to do with comprehending the subject at hand.

Prof. Dr. Abdul Hameed, Dean Department of Education in University of Management and Technology said in a conversation,

“I have witnessed too many students spending hours memorizing the syntax of programming languages. They repeat this information during exams.

However, when the students who pass these exams are then given a simple project, they often are unable to summon any form of creativity – or think for themselves – because they have been conditioned to rely on memorization and recall to serve them.”

Inexperienced Computer Science teachers add fuel to this raging fire. Too many know nothing about the computer programming. They are little more than Computer users who quickly run out of interesting examples and problems that would be suitable for adding to each student’s level of knowledge and programming ability.

Their students never learn to discover algorithms, analyze them or compare different paths to solutions.

Computer Science must be “discovered”, not “taught”

Yes, you know the article will advocate necessary changes, but let’s first consider our teaching methodologies. Computer Science is not a subject that can be “taught.” Instead, it must be “discovered” and “learned” by fascinated students.

Their passion for it must be installed, fed and nurtured by our most competent teachers. Students should be presented with opportunities to learn the representation of data in coding formats.

Young children especially love codes; you probably can recall your own fascination with Morse code. With high interest intact, these young minds can then be challenged to explore. Only then will they begin to understand that algorithms really are a vital set of operating instructions and directives.

Asim Sheharyar Tareen, MD, Pakistan Software Export Board said, “The concept of algorithms is so critical in this area of study, the best teachers will ask students to find the difference among algorithms with which they already may be familiar.

Simple board games, card games, and recipes – even the operation of a microwave oven — can be illustrative and used to build the interest of students in algorithm-reliant software programming.

There is a dire need to make Computer Science more compelling and “real” than say, Biology when it comes to teaching methodologies. This will legitimately capture the imagination, increase the interest of students and promote discoveries within this subject.

Students should be encouraged and afforded opportunities to discover new algorithms, analyze them and explain them. We continue to push routine memorization upon students in advanced grades of Biology, Chemistry, and Physics, but if that becomes the rule of the day for Computer Science, we will rue the day.

Without fully implanting discovery and innovations within their impressionable minds, we are only fooling one another.

Seriously, who’s kidding whom?

As students are exposed to these concepts, they also will be gradually learning algorithm-based problem-solving strategies. Moreover, they will be able to remember them – and build upon them — thanks to the journey of personal discovery. Let’s call this academic conflict as route vs. rote.

The primary objective should be to teach children a new set of reasoning and problem-solving skills — namely creating the rules of a game rather than merely following them. Computer Science means so much more than learning to program in Java or C++. Programming is central to computing, but underlying principles of algorithms, data structures, and computational thinking are considerably more durable.

As such, we must end the lingering confusion between Computer Science and Information and Computer Technology (ICT) skills; knowledge about the latter often is delivered by non-specialists.

However, here’s the Catch-22

The high demand for IT professionals is reducing the supply of our most well-qualified teachers–as well as would-be teachers. Hence, there is a critical need for teacher training within the realm of Computer Science.

Until we can clearly differentiate Computer Science as a rigorous subject based upon digital literacy, Pakistan will only produce “pseudo-scientists” who will not be revered on the world’s stage. This burden rests on the broad shoulders of the government.

University of Health Sciences and the Pakistan Medical & Dental Council oversee testing for the medical field. The Pakistan Engineering Council (PEC) requires standard examinations for mechanical, electrical, civil and other related disciplines. However, there is no “capping” body to check the quality of learning of these future software engineers.

To tackle this glaring oversight, the PEC was given the task of testing for software engineering skills, despite having only two professional software engineers to coordinate tests for this vital acumen. This shows a seriousness lack of acknowledgment about the actual impact of this burgeoning sector that will be so vital to the future of our beloved country.

The demand is real for properly-accredited professionals to help students believe that Computer Science is not confined only to learning the definitions of hardware. Nor is it to be considered synonymous to using word processors and spreadsheets and presentation software.

Shamim Akhtar, the principal of a renowned private school in Kasur, explained that how students — mostly in pursuit of their Secondary School Certificate –are being exposed to programming.

After being previously exposed only to writing on a word processor or creating presentations, software programming appears as on screen as a mind-boggling hailstorm of foreign alphabets. Unfortunately, they have been set up for failure.

Those who tout the telecom sector — and portray it as an indicator of progress within the IT sector –must realize the realities. Sure, we’ve made some progress if you count the number of SIM cards sold and cellular subscribers.

However, real progress in the area of Computer Science will be quantified by the volume of software that is exported, the number of automated businesses, and in particular by the number of students born under our national flag who finally can reach the heights of Silicon Valley. Only a fierce determination will allow us to compete with India and the rest of the world’s brilliant minds.

Stop haphazardly placing diploma holders as Computer Science teachers. It is mind-boggling that the Government of Punjab, which has appointed thousands of science teachers within the province in last two years, did not feel compelled to announce similar vacancies for Computer Science teachers. It is time to get our heads out of the clouds and strategically invest in our most valuable resource – the future of our children.

Develop content standards of Computer Science that are on a par with Biology, Physics, Chemistry and Mathematics. This will provide a clear pathway to the development of standards for classroom instruction and advanced curriculums for teacher-education programs at the B.Ed. and M.Ed. level. A standardized exit examination that rates IT skills, administered over a period of time, may be useful in evaluating efforts to adapt and improve a curriculum.

Demand that the apparently accepted practice of taking a Computer Science education for granted must cease immediately. For the sake of our country’s pride, advancement and, yes, national security, the federal and provincial ministries of Education – and related departments — must quickly acknowledge this area as a unique discipline and act to address past failures.

Recognize that outdated hardware –coupled with a lack of resources — must be addressed as the national emergency that it has sadly and actually become. Burying our heads in the sand is no longer an option. Only with vision and pride can we proceed along a path of educational excellence in Computer Science.

Asian tigers, once found in forests, are there no more. They had to adapt Pakistan’s potential Computer Science geniuses – our own endangered species — should know that when they enter a classroom in Pakistan, they will be receiving proper training and superior encouragement.

Can our leaders adapt as well? There’s really no choice, especially if they want to spare untold future generations the harsh indignity of lagging even farther behind the rest of world during the dawn of the Cyber Age.

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