The Friday interview: James Greenslade, Tipperary Institute

1 Feb 2008

There has been a 56pc drop in the number of students accepting third-level computing courses, says James Greenslade (pictured), director of ICT, Tipperary Institute.

How serious is the decline in interest in computing courses at third level?
The drop from 4,097 to 1,791 in the number of students taking up third-level courses in computing from 2000 to last year is extremely worrying. A 56pc drop will pose a significant threat to one of Ireland’s most successful and secure sectors.

Why are students not taking up computer courses?
To hear a teenager say that “computers are boring” raises questions about the extent to which the true potential of ICT is getting through to our children. One of the great ironies of having a PC in every classroom is that some students may never realise its true creative potential.

They may be able to turn it on, type endless blocks of text, change the desktop background and maybe even rearrange their Bebo page but how many people can actually write a simple piece of code to make a PC do what they want instead of what our most popular software giants predefine?

What other factors are eating into IT graduate levels?
One of the challenges is getting those who do take up a computing course to continue the whole way through to get an honours degree. People can get a job for €25,000 without completing their degree. They’re being poached by worker-hungry companies who train them up but in the long term the economy is not getting the honours graduates who will go on to masters and PhD level.

Can the shortfall be made up from graduates from overseas?
Major technology companies are still coming to our shores but five years down the road it is a worry that we won’t have the home-grown talent they will need.

I welcome the influx of workers from abroad but it’s a pity Irish people don’t realise what’s on their own doorstep.

What measures need to be adopted to stem this decline?
Throughout the Seventies and Eighties, forward-thinking teachers (primarily of Maths persuasion) taught coding, in the form of Modula 2 and BASIC and the like, to some of their students because they saw the value of developing the logical abilities of their students.

I firmly believe the foundations of the success of the computing industry in Ireland over the past two decades were laid in these computer classes where the combined power of the machines was less than a modern MP3 player. Programming needs to be taught in schools in the same way as video editing is being incorporated into the art curriculum.

What should educational initiatives be focusing on?
People are spoon-fed and spoilt for choice when it comes to software. You can create a website without having to know anything about HTML. What’s not actually being created is the actual content. That’s where people can still get creative.

One initiative that is successful but needs more backing is the Digital Schools Initiative. At the moment only the very forward-thinking teachers are getting their students involved.

By Niall Byrne