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Technology Education Policy in Election 2017

Ian Apperley, Guest post. 26 July 2017, 7:18 am
Technology Education Policy in Election 2017

I had the privilege to spend several hours with a very gifted teacher this weekend discussing what we need to do in New Zealand to bolster the technology industry via way of government policy and direction. 

I'm writing about government policy that is, awfully slowly, being released in relation to the tech sector. Education is a cornerstone policy that I think so far has been weak. It tends to rely on more archaic thinking including the isolationist "STEM" view, which, in my opinion, is not nearly broad enough to create educated graduates in a rapidly evolving world. 

Nor do current policy statements deal with other issues such as how effective tertiary education is, rapid training, and the fact that a lot of grads, anecdotally (perhaps 75%), are not finding work in the local industry. 

In the digital manifesto released by various industry groups the goal of education policy is that "New Zealand equips every child with the digital technology skills needed to be safe and successful in a digital world through comprehensive Digital Technology education."

It's a pretty boring statement and the wider recommendation is to throw more resource at the current education system, potentially throwing good money after bad. It's not innovative.

Another educator I spoke to gave me a metaphor for what education is attempting to do in the digital space. 

He said that basically education are trying to reinvent the cart. Put GPS on it, make it more modern, more relevant, pack it with technology, however the problem is that it is still hitched to the same old donkey. 

We need to change the donkey, not so much the cart. 

The reality is that technology change is outstripping the education process, particularly at tertiary level. We are not just talking about computer science or traditional STEM degrees, we are also talking about other professions, such as Law. 

A lot of education paths are teaching material that is redundant within months let alone years, and we must either accelerate the pathways or change them so we produce adaptable and resilient graduates. 

That means a rethink of the current tertiary system in total and you run into a wall of resistant academics who combine rigid thinking with a sense of knowing better than the rest of us coupled with a commercial drive by, particularly universities, which creates trapped thinking. 

The teacher friend I spoke to this weekend suggest we replace STEM with SHTEAM. It's not a catchy acronym, it stands for; Science, Humanities, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Mathematics. 

She's a teacher that educates in both Arts and Technology and it's an interesting view. 

Rather than having a raw STEM focus, adding in humanities and arts produces far more rounded and adaptable students. 

Internationally, particularly in Silicon Valley, the move to hire STEM graduates is dropping. The large technology companies are now looking to hiring creatives, particularly those with art qualifications. 

That's because that creative thread allows for more imagination, better innovation, and the breaking of traditional engineering and Rational Thinking. Rational thinking, especially in relation to management, is the curse of modern innovation and is slowly sliding into obsolescence though it's practitioners are holding on until the bitter end. 

That SHTEAM approach allows for a much more holistic educated graduate. As well as sciences, they are imbued with the way that humanity operates and have a creative streak that allows that imaginative innovation to fire. 

We need to break the stranglehold that tertiary institutions have on this education "market." They are not going to change their business models and will fade into irrelevance. Pouring more money into those donkeys is going to produce the same results that we see today.

Education has been disrupted by the tech sector and just like every other sector it is fighting for survival. Rather than adaptation occurring it is sticking rigidly to dogma that has been in place since World War II. 

They need to be honest with themselves and disrupt their own practices before they collapse. That means completely fresh thinking and a paradigm shift in learning. 

Government needs to set aside research and development resource to understand how they can leap-frog the current education paradigm to something new. A think tank of individuals who have already made that shift from the donkey to the super-charged engine of the 21st Century would be a great start. 

Ian Apperley is well known to many in the ICT industry as both participant and commentator and craft beer apologist.


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Paul Matthews 26 July 2017, 11:28 am

Interesting comments, Ian, however here are some other things to think about.

Firstly, I appreciate you might have found aspects of the manifesto boring. That's good - it wasn't actually meant to be sexy; it was put together following broad consideration to identify areas of change that would have a positive and significant impact on New Zealand (and the tech sector). Some of it isn't groundbreaking or disruptive, but that doesn't mean it's not valid. We're talking about government policy here :).

A good example is education.

To state that 75% of tertiary graduates in IT can't get work is patently false. Looking at stats, around 80% of people entering the IT industry come through a qualification pathway today and the vast bulk are finding work. Those without a bachelors degree are 2.4x more likely to be unemployed than those with a degree. For Māori this is even more pronounced, at 3.3x more likely to be unemployed.

It is true that many graduates find breaking into that first role hard and as an industry we don't invest enough in recent graduates or bridging that gap. But the vast majority (between around 80% and 90% depending on whose stats you use) do find IT work following graduation. That still leaves 10-20% that don't of course, but is a far cry from 75%.

A good example of how much value the whole industry places on qualifications (rather than just the vocal ones who speak out) is to look at salary levels with and without - the premium that employers are prepared to pay for those who are degree qualified. For example, the census found that those with a degree on average earn 77% more than those without, over time. Interestingly, those with a Computer Science, Information Systems or general IT degree earn 27% more than the average for degree-holders as well.

That doesn't mean that employers have a policy of paying degree-holders more, or that even do so consciously. It means that, on average, they value the contribution made from those who have taken the time to study tech in-depth over several years more than those who haven't. Again, this is on average across the population - individual results will vary widely.

Obviously this gap firms up a little when you look at similar occupations, but there is still a significant gap. On average, those in our sector who have gained a degree are far more likely to earn more, progress faster and get further in their careers. That's not to say those without a degree can't do well - many do of course.

So while things like micro-credentialing, MOOCs, disrupting education, etc are sexy at the moment, it's very hard to get past the fact that the vast majority of people entering our industry study to get a degree first (just like law, medicine, engineering, etc) and as a result are more highly sought, have significantly better employment prospects, and will (on average) be paid more and get further and faster over their career than those without.

Also, I'm not suggesting that different or alternative educational pathways aren't good - they certainly are. MOOCs are great for some learners, despite the dismal 10-15% completion rate and the fact that most MOOC learners already have a degree.

And changes to existing degree courses are needed, constantly (albeit they are happening, constantly). As an organisation we've put things in place to encourage that, including scrapping and rewriting all sub-degree qualifications in NZ recently, and formally recognising degree programmes with good outcomes for industry via formal accreditation (tied to international outcomes).

But when you look at the actual facts, it's hard to conclude that the tertiary sector, in its current model, is on the brink of collapse.

(Disclaimer: All of this is "on average". There are certainly many many very talented folks in our industry without degrees, and after a certain period of time, experience trumps degrees. However the stats are the stats)

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