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No plan to prepare for digital age

Xero managing director Anna Curzon writes in for Stuff:

“It’s about time digital technology was recognised as an important topic of education because it’s crucial we prepare our next generation for tomorrow’s world.”

Someone could have written the same words any time in the last 40 years. It’s not a new idea. People said the same when I was at school in the 1970s. We ran similar comments when I edited The Dominion’s Computer Pages in the 1980s.

The idea is no more crucial today than it was before. Imagine how many Xeros, Vends and Orions we could have now if government listened then.

The difference is that we now have a vibrant home-grown technology sector to show the benefits technology-savvy citizens can bring.

Role models

We also now have successful role models; articulate industry leaders able to argue the case for technology. Curzon is one of them.

They run companies that bring in valuable export dollars. Their contribution to the economy is more reliable than the bust-boom cycles from, say, the dairy industry.

That alone should get them a hearing.

It’s chilling that after the effort industry leaders and others have put into explaining this, the Minister of Education and her officials ignored them.

There’s always a danger when industries push sector-based education agenda. It would be a disaster if, say, dairy leaders talked schools into adding dairy-farming to the curriculum.

Yet digital technology is hardly special pleading. It is as fundamental to the 21st century as reading, writing and arithmetic. These days digital technology is reading, writing and arithmetic.

Skills and Employment Minister Steven Joyce earmarked almost $29 million over the next four years to deepen New Zealand’s technology talent pool.

The money will pay for Information and Communications Technology grad schools in Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch.

The last part is important. Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch all legitimately claim to be technology hubs. Post-earthquake Christchurch’s claim is the most fragile. Government money is a vote of confidence at an important time.

I doubt the planned Christchurch Innovation Precinct will attract start-ups. Technology entrepreneurs have better things to spend money on than renting fancy offices.

That doesn’t mean it’s a bad thing. Technology companies have much to gain from clustering, it’s good for inter-company relationships. Innovation thrives in tight-knit communities. Putting a graduate school on the same site intensifies this effect.

Wellington’s geography gives the city a natural advantage when it comes to clustering. Auckland, however, is far more fragmented.

Labour ICT spokesperson Clare Curran says the plan is ‘woefully inadequate’. In a statement, she says 350 students in four years time is not enough and calls for a more focused technology policy.

While the centres are going to Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch, it seems they may not automatically be part of the universities or polytechnics in those cities. The government’s press release says:

A tender process will be used to seek innovative proposals from education providers and their industry partners to develop and operate the ICT Graduate Schools.

I’m not sure if that’s a good thing. Is this the kind of teaching that can be sensibly outsourced? What do you think?

TechEd, now running in Auckland, is New Zealand largest technology event. By at least one important measure, the local event is a world-beater.

Microsoft NZ managing director Paul Muckleston says 2,500 delegates attended this year’s TechEd. We rarely see anything on this scale.

That’s a capacity crowd at the Sky City Convention Centre. Un-New Zealand like queues form for escalators before the day’s first sessions and there are long lines for lunch. Local bars and restaurants are packed when the day finishes. The expo space is busy even while the nine or so simultaneous sessions are running.
Microsoft Teched Auckland

Room for even more

Muckleston says he looks forward to when the new centre opens as he thinks he could get more people along. That’s plausible, tickets for the event generally sell out – a sure sign demand outstrips supply.

Although there have been many Microsoft TechEd events around the world, the New Zealand conference is one of seven held in 2013.

It’s not the largest, the US event attracts a crowd of around 7,000. TechEd Europe has about 5,000 attendees and in earlier years the Australian TechEd – usually held on the Gold Coast – gets a crowd around 2,800.

Which means in population-adjusted terms, Microsoft New Zealand beats its international counterparts by a long shot.

Mighty morphin’ TechEd

There are unflattering reasons for the relative popularity of the New Zealand event. Some point out there aren’t as many competing events in this country as elsewhere.

That view misses the point. Microsoft New Zealand is expert at engaging with local customers. It does this well – in larger markets the company can often seem distant and distracted, here you can just get people on the phone or run into them at events like TechEd.

Microsoft marketing director Frazer Scott says TechEd has been running for 18 years in New Zealand and the company has worked hard to make sure it stays fresh. He says Microsoft changes the emphasis and the approach every year to keep people coming back.

Substantial investment

The company enjoys better a better relationship with partners and customers here than overseas. This is only partly explained by the nation’s smallness or the tight-knittedness of the tech community.

Consider the commitment. One company sent more than 160 employees to the conference, many have dozens of staff at the event. At $1900 a ticket – although there are group discounts – that’s a big investment by any standards. Scott says Microsoft doesn’t aim to make money from the conference, although in a good year it does cover the costs of putting on the event.  And don’t forget it means almost an entire week where staff time can’t be billed to clients.

Companies see TechEd as a training exercise – which makes sense, after all, TechEd is short for technical education.

ZDNet Australia reports Google Australia calls for mandatory comp sci until year 10. The aim is to reverse the falling numbers of university computer science students.:

Google has called upon the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA) to increase the exposure of Australian primary and secondary school students to computer science, by making the new Digital Technologies subject mandatory from kindergarten until year 10.

If falling university computer science rolls is a problem – I’m not convinced it is – then the problem is not whether school children were force-fed the subject. It’ll be more because students view the courses as dull and unrewarding or because they don’t see a positive future for comp sci graduates.

These issues need addressing before teachers frog-march kiddies to compulsory programming or whatever.

Also, if government decides there’s a strategic need to train more young people in computer science, then subsidise fees for the course – that’ll work out a lot cheaper and more effective than any alternative.

 

Marketing consultant Johnny Moore writes about “a creeping extension of the need for academic qualifications, the ability to write clever essays” in The Tyranny of the Explicit.

He says:

The intention is good, but the practical effect is to engulf people in explicit, complicated systems and reduce their freedom – based on an unconscious assumption that everyone is not to be trusted. We give ascendancy to people who are really great at theory and effectively degrade practice. I think its rooted in the idea that one person or a group of people can effectively oversee a system and control how it works with written instructions.

One aspect of this is the arse-covering qualifications provide. If, say, a marketing manager hires a copywriter with a degree in copy-writing, they feel they are not to blame if the writer fails to deliver.

There’s an incentive in most organisations to engage the best-qualified person for a task, not the most experienced, best skilled or highest performer.