time to educate teachers about data science
How can we encourage kids to consider data science as a viable or exciting future if teachers themselves do not buy in? Image: Sergey Nivens/Shutterstock

Time to educate teachers about data science

10 Oct 2016

If data is the oil of the 21st century and data science holds the key to rewarding careers, someone needs to tell the teachers, writes John Kennedy.

In the 21st century, every business will be a data business. In a fortnight’s time, Siliconrepublic.com will be holding Data Science Week, where we will highlight the promises of the data age from the skills and expertise to the technologies and the leaders.

Not all businesses realise that they are data businesses, but Google knows it, Facebook knows it, and I guarantee you the majority of the Fortune 1,000 companies know it. Even Tinder knows it. The devil is in the detail and the seams of gold lie in the ability to glean insight from every morsel of data.

‘The data scientist will be the hottest job of 21st century – but teachers don’t know’

Every pharmaceutical company knows this, the biggest retailers on the planet know this.

But do teachers know about the value of data and the careers they portend for kids who learn the value of data science?

Despite the evidence, do policymakers in countries like Ireland or the UK know that data is the new oil? Just like in the gold rush of the 19th century, not only those who mine the data but those that manufacture the pickaxes and shovels of the data age stand on the edge of undreamed riches, fuelled by knowledge and insight.

“The data scientist will be the hottest job of 21st century – but teachers don’t know,” said Edel Lynch, head of analytics at Accenture in Ireland, said in a conversation two years ago.

In the time since, Accenture located a vital new innovation centre in Dublin with €25m in investment behind it and up to 450 new jobs – in areas such as cognitive computing, IoT, advanced analytics, security and digital marketing – have been created in that one project alone.

As thousands of new jobs are created in Ireland by digital and biotech industries, many of the “hot” jobs of 2016 are in areas that didn’t actually exist as a profession a decade ago. Many capabilities, with data and digital skills, are in particular demand.

But we have to realise that the speed at which the digital and STEM industries are moving is leaving traditional education in their wake.

Someone forgot to tell the teachers

Indeed the teacher, the ultimate disseminator of data and the person whose role it is to help ignite imagination, spark ambition, and help a young mind decipher fact from fiction, is being forgotten about.

The lamentable truth is that teachers have their own problems. In the US, many young graduate teachers leave the profession after only a few years for better paid jobs in any number of alternative professions that value their intellect.

In the US, many teachers have to hold down second jobs just to make ends meet because their rates of pay are so derisory.

In Ireland, many young teachers who graduated after 2010 are left in the unenviable position of being paid far less than colleagues they work alongside. This is all because of some union vote where ladders were pulled up inside the round tower as the recession raged, and someone had to be sacrificed. In a fine Irish tradition, that sacrifice is inevitably made by the young.

As a result, our brightest hope for igniting the spark of genius in young minds, our teachers, are beginning their own careers demoralised. Don’t be surprised if what used to be a job for life will be spurned for the quicker win of a job in data.

At a time when we should be valuing the input of teachers who can encourage kids to think differently, think critically and excel at data and STEM subjects (particularly maths), we aren’t valuing our educators in the same way they ought to be.

Contrast this with Finland, where the status of teacher stands shoulder to shoulder with that of doctor or lawyer. Where teachers have their own offices. Where teachers don’t have to follow standardised test procedures or prepare kids to just learn by rote and regurgitate by memory, but work individually with students to get the best out of them and help them develop personally, as well as intellectually.

Ireland recently embarked on a major reform of its education system aimed at Ireland having the best in Europe by 2026. Many of the measures included worthy additions, like computer programming and entrepreneurship. The objective is to ensure Ireland fields a workforce capable of attracting well paid jobs. I predict these well paid jobs will have data at their core.

Because data science will impact every facet of life in the 21st century, we need to start with the educators.

And industry has a role to play. The tech industry will live and die by its ability to access talent.

The seed of this talent will be diverse – science, technology, engineering and maths are critical – but we must also appreciate the missing ‘A’ for ‘Art’ that also taps into native abilities in literature, music, design and much, much more. Remember, the only academic course the late Steve Jobs of Apple ever did was calligraphy.

Industry is playing a role but more needs to follow. Companies like Google and Accenture are playing an active role in encouraging students and teachers alike develop core digital skills.

The impressive Outbox Incubator led by Mary Carty has played a critical role in helping young women navigate the world of entrepreneurship in the digital and STEM realm.

And only this morning, we reported how Science Foundation Ireland and Fidelity Investments – a company whose future depends on the power of data to be analysed – were working on the Futurewize programme. This will see 80 industry professionals volunteer to help Junior Cycle students discover rewarding career possibilities through STEM subjects like science, technology, engineering and maths.

Ebb and flow, ups and downs

At the Irish Internet Association’s (IIA) Dot IE Net Visionary Awards on Friday (7 October), where outgoing IIA CEO Joan Mulvihill was honoured with the overall award, I had a bittersweet pang of memory where I recalled Joan bringing out a paper on Open Data and how it could benefit society.

I always meant to tell her that it would be a wonderful thing if kids could do projects on data that they could glean from local county councils. It would help them to figure out how to do data modelling and perhaps provide a valuable service for their local community, or kick-start an entrepreneurial drive.

At the awards, I found myself sitting next to an executive from an Irish start-up whose entire business depended on data crunching. He told me that when he was in his Leaving Cert year (2003), his teachers told him not to go into a career in technology because the industry was collapsing. Fortunately for him, he didn’t listen.

That same year, I received a phone call from an irate mother whose son had studied technology at college because they thought that was where the jobs were, and commentators like me had told them so. It was apparently my fault that the dot-com bubble happened three years earlier!

Around this time, Prof Michael Ryan of the computing department at DCU said that the numbers of students putting computing as their first choice on CAO forms had plummeted by 80pc. This was largely due to the negative publicity surrounding the dot-com collapse and teachers and parents advising their kids to steer clear of technology.

Well, that was 13 years ago and today there are an estimated 700,000 IT job vacancies across Europe.

In Dublin, Google has become the biggest employer with almost 6,000 people. Apple is approaching 6,000 people in Cork, and Facebook, which didn’t exist 13 years ago (it was founded in 2004), is hurtling towards 1,500 jobs in Dublin.

Across Ireland, new jobs in data and analytics in particular are being created almost weekly by a variety of companies in a variety of industries, including companies like Bluemetrix, IBM, Tableau, Fortuity, and First Data. Last week, we reported that Wood Group, a company that services the oil and gas industry, has established a new data analytics centre of excellence at its Galway office.

The parallel between early 2000s, when the tech industry was in a downward spiral, and today, when quintessentially every business is becoming a digital business, is that tech skills and data science skills in particular will always be in demand.

Like any industry sector, the tech industry by itself will always have ebb and flow. It is cyclical. In the 1990s, there was a downturn caused by chip shortages due to earthquakes in Japan. In March 2000, the dot-com bubble burst as shares plunged on the NASDAQ. Around the same time, a telecoms industry downturn was fuelled by over-investment in 3G licenses in Europe.

The current buoyant state of the present tech industry – driven equally by demand for devices like smartphones and massive funding rounds by unicorns – is begging for a correction of some kind.

What will happen if the tech industry spirals? Jobs will come and go, but eventually the industry will get back on its feet. Because innovators keep innovating.

The only difference between now and 2000 is that the digital skills and data science abilities in demand by the tech industry are equally in demand among companies as diverse as Boots, Tesco, Ford, Deloitte, Microsoft, Glanbia, Vodafone, MSD – you name it.

The truth is every business, no matter what industry, is today a digital business.

Data science will indeed be the hottest sphere to be in.

For that we need critical thinkers and people with imagination and artistic ability, but we also need number crunchers.

For these, we will need the teachers to know about data science.

The teachers need to know. But first, they need to be valued.

John Kennedy
By John Kennedy

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years. His interests include all things technological, music, movies, reading, history, gaming and losing the occasional game of poker.

Loading now, one moment please! Loading