Professor Bill Buchanan: ‘We are creating a nation of tech users who have little understanding of what lies underneath.’

Professor Bill Buchanan, from the School of Computing, has been recognised with an OBE for his services to cyber security and innovation.
Prof. Bill Buchanan

In the week that marks the 38th birthday of the IBM PC, we are possibly at our lowest point in trying to engage our next generation into computer science.

In Computer Science at school in Scotland, the Higher subject is now the 19th most popular subject, and saw the largest drop in pupils taking it of any subject (a fall of 21%).

This is a sad reflection on our drive towards a knowledge economy in Scotland, and might be a sign that we are creating a nation of tech users, and who have little understanding of what lies underneath.

For some reason we switch so many kids off computer science and programming at such as early age, and often we give them a dull syllabus, which is out-of-date by the time that we deliver it. The lack of standardisation and sharing of coding in Scotland has not helped with engagement, especially as there is no common platform for sharing code across schools.

We even came up with our own pseudo code language – and which is not used in other parts of the world and lacks resources to support it. The core area that needs to be addressed is generally whether computer science becomes a compulsory subject, and where no one can drop it.

If so, we need a significant investment in teachers for the subject, including  allowing those in industry to be seconded to schools. In the future, someone in medicine or law will be as likely to code in Python as anyone else. We also make sure that we are teaching skills and not focusing on academic study.

Programming often involves the skills of solving problems and with psychomotor skills, and increasing it is the hands-on and problem-solving skills that industry needs. Most companies now use GitHub for their code, and it provides a way to share it. They also use Cloud-based systems to provide their environments.

For some reason, our schools still use desktop computers where the opportunity to run things at home is minimal. Unfortunately, there are few  ways for industry and parents to get involved in helping coding, as each school can go their own way with the coding.  The computer science syllabus in Scotland has missed out on the areas where it could appraise pupils of the opportunities and threats that they may face, and to redress many of the problems we have caused in our current version of the Internet.

The rise of data science, cybersecurity, machine learning, cryptocurrencies,  and many other areas are just not covered in a way that would create a generation who understood how to build better digital societies. While NPAs (National Progression Awards) are being developed to cover some of these areas, it leaves the computer science subject, generally, under threat, and possibly further reduces the potential audience for those we want to get into coding.

We need to switch our kids onto the opportunities within an increasingly digitally-focused world. Coding is fun, and will provide the jobs of the future. Personally, I would say that we want every child should be able to code with a language like Python, understand some Linux commands, and  know how a computer works.  This will create a digitally-focused workforce, and those who want to do cybersecurity, data science and software engineering can go off and continue their studies. Imagine if we said that PE at school was only for those who wanted to become a sports scientist?


Prof. William (Bill) Buchanan, OBE, PhD, FBCS, PFHEA, CEng, BSc (Hons), Cisco Regional Instructor, Professor of Computing, Edinburgh Napier University,