DJRFF Featured in EdTechnology, Jan 2019

Coding might be cool, but data is where it’s really at

David Richards, co-founder of the David and Jane Richards Family
Foundation, discusses why data science education needs to be
prioritised, and why widening access is essential

Coding has certainly caught the imagination of many young people and teachers. One initiative alone has more than 7,600 code clubs run by volunteers across the UK, reaching 106,000 children who are being taught to code in languages like Scratch, HTML & CSS and Python.

Coding can provide meaningful skills and open the door to a successful career. But to focus exclusively on coding is misguided. Like many process-driven activities, computer programming is at risk of automation as machine learning takes over more and more tasks. In addition, code entry and composition have limited appeal to students in the mainstream who might otherwise benefit from and contribute to the technology industry, a sector experiencing a serious skills shortage in the UK.

Data science, on the other hand, is a topic that can reach every student, regardless of their gender or background. Data science encourages young people to consider real-world challenges and ask thoughtful questions about everything and anything. Will it rain in Crosspool tomorrow?

Who will score for Sheffield Wednesday this weekend? How can your loved ones avoid a particular serious illness? What will be the best-paying career? The opportunities are limited only by imagination. The advancement of data science in state school classrooms presents a huge opportunity for the UK.

Girls who actively deselect coding and jobs in technology – they currently represent just 17% of the UK tech workforce – can be inspired to enter the industry and enjoy successful and rewarding careers. As can people from BAME backgrounds who might feel put o by the ‘brogramming’ culture.

Again, they can offer new skills and experiences to the industry and apply these in ways that benefit everyone. Data science can also appeal to boys who wouldn’t naturally want to spend hours in front of a screen solving logic puzzles in their bedrooms.

Bringing all these people into the digital economy will provide a massive boost to the UK productivity and make a valuable contribution to the national wellbeing and prosperity at a time when Brexit Britain is less sure of its place in the world. More profoundly, equipping young people with the tools to succeed in an increasingly digital world can give us a fighting chance of solving many of the great problems facing humankind at this stage of evolution.

I remember my own school days three decades ago. My schoolmates and I loved playing home computer games like Daley Thompson’s Decathlon, Manic Miner and Jetpac. We desperately wanted to learn how to create our own gaming worlds, but our computer science lessons were concerned with components and the difference between RAM and ROM. Luckily for me, a sixth-form teacher spotted my potential and steered me to a practical learning course at the University of Huddersfield that would teach me skills relevant to industry.

It’s no coincidence that nearly all my university peers have gone on to enjoy great careers in technology.

I hope that today’s generation aren’t failed by a state education system that is struggling with spending cuts in spite of the frankly heroic efforts of many teachers. We need to teach young people how to make the machines work for them, not the other way around. Applied data science offers the perfect path to do this.