Is Eric Schmidt right about the UK losing its way with our youth? Does the internet offer a massive education revolution?
But the UK media has ignored all that. It has instead picked up on a couple of comments Schmidt made about the UK abandoning sciences and mathematics in favour of humanities. He was also appalled that the UK national curriculum had dropped Computer Studies (not that I knew it was ever included).
Taking this last point first, I am not so sure we need to teach our kids how computers work. Every kid in the UK can use them, and many have learned how to edit videos and pictures. Many of them will eventually be able to use spreadsheets and word processors as well, if only as part of other disciplines such as English and Business Studies etc. So why is it important for us to train kids how to programme computers? Surely the days of needing to know about DOS and C++, or whatever, are virtually over for computer scientists. The tools they use today are far higher level languages which reduce programming times from weeks (decades ago) to hours or even seconds. The focus today is on 'what' to programme, not 'how'. In fact the latest statistics about which subjects studied at university have the highest and lowest probability of employment show Medicine and Veterinary Studies as the most useful, and, wait for it, Computer Studies as the least likely to result in employment in the UK. A staggering 25% of Computer Science graduates don't find employment within 6 months of graduating.
The reason is simple. Millions of Indians, Chinese and Philippinos do it for a fraction of the price we can afford to programme in developed countries. But this doesn't mean to say we shouldn't be programming - just that if you want one written, the world has changed since the days when a degree in Computer Science was essential before anything could be produced. These days, hundreds of thousands of reasonably smart people have written iPhone apps, without having any formal knowledge of computer programming. The toolkits provided are relatively simple to learn (although I must confess I tried to develop an app myself recently, and got stuck :-( ).
But what Schmidt did get riled about, and I have to say I was enraged when I heard the same thing, was when that prize pratt Lord (huh?) Sugar stated he had never met an engineer who was also a good businessman. Wanker! Quite apart from Schmidt, and his bosses Larry and Sergey (all engineers), and Dyson, and me (oh yes... BSc Mech Eng from UCL - actually the worst engineer ever to graduate from UCL, but accomplished nonetheless) and probably half the bosses of the FTSE 100 / Fortune 500, engineers make brilliant businessmen... IF, they have learned to listen to the market and not their own hot air.
So yes, we do need to encourage kids to study fantastic subjects like Engineering and the Sciences. And as Scmidt argues, not at the expense of the Humanities, but in tandem with them. Why make kids decide which side of this nonsensical divide they sit, and then make them focus on that decision for the rest of their lives? Surely we should encourage everyone, for as long as possible, to develop a passion to learn about everything that interests them, and not assume that there's no relationship between the humanities and the sciences. Of course they're totally integrated. In fact I find it hard to separate them. Is photography the science of capturing imagery, storing it, manipulating it, and reproducing it, or is it an art form? Of course it's both. Is the design of a car a science or an art? It's both, clearly. Is the manipulation of a gene to produce a new molecule a thing of wonder and beauty, or just a string of letters and numbers? Are poetry and music simply pleasing arrangements of letters and sounds, or are mathematics and neuro-sciences deeply at work there too? Is marketing the creation of words and images to attract attention, or the study and manipulation of intricate data to devise and deliver ad campaigns that finely target high probability customers? It's all of these. So why force our brains, at a ridiculously young age, to choose between them? It makes no sense.
So Schmidt is right. We must start developing a far more holistic view of education. But what didn't develop in his talk was the idea that the internet can help. Massively! (Which is odd, since he and his chums sort of own it...). The problem with formal education the world over is that it's designed to work in the traditional way where students are forced into learning subjects defined by the resources and infra-structures that have evolved because physical constraints dictate that this has to be the case (teachers, classrooms, class sizes, subject books, term times etc). A teacher can't be in two places at once. A classroom can only teach one lesson at a time to a limited number of students. Schools can only be heated and made secure generally between the hours of 8 and 6 on weekdays. Etc. For thousands of years we've been constrained in the way we educate by the fact it has to fit into the physical world and its four dimensions. But the internet smashes all of that. Time is not a factor. The supply of teaching staff is not a factor. The volume of students is not a factor, the range of subjects available for teaching is not a factor, etc. And slowly but surely, the ability for the internet to tune how it might teach each individual is beginning to be explored. One day education will be personalised and infinite in its range. Education won't be about students adapting to what's available. It will be about encouraging each brain to explore the limits of its potential. Watch this: