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In Front of Technology Comes Communication

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I distinctly remember being bored by ICT lessons; maybe it was because little focus was paid to the middle-letter in the acronym, which stands for communications. Recently we've heard a great deal from industry experts and educationalists about the need to radically overhaul how ICT is taught in schools - it is purportedly even a necessary factor in the rebalancing of our economy - but I believe the arguments put forward fall short because they ignore that pesky C-word.

If you haven't been following recent developments, here's a brief round-up of what's been happening. Back in June 2010 Ian Livingstone of the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts, commissioned by Ed Vaizey MP, the Minister for Culture, Communications and Creative Industries, looked into how school leavers and graduates could be better-equipped for working in the video games and visual effects industries. His report ("Next Gen."), set out how the UK could be transformed into a global hub for the two industries.

Fast-forward to early January of this year, and Livingstone's latest recommendation is more fundamental: "teach children how to write computer programmes", he wrote in the Guardian, so they have "the skills to create the next Google, Twitter, Facebook or Zynga". Vaizey told the same newspaper "Computer skills are the grammar of the 21st century", adding, "Just as we write well and read well, I think that if you have even a basic understanding of computer coding, it will help you understand the structure of your digital life."

This is the context for education secretary Michael Gove's revamp of the ICT curriculum, announced last Wednesday, which pledges to eliminate "off-putting, demotivating and dull" material in favour of simple computer animation, formal logic, and cheap gadgets like the Raspberry Pi that will teach programming skills.

The claim that coding is the "grammar of the 21st century" certainly makes for a catchy soundbite, but it rests on hazy logic: that young people can "write well and read well", and that this implies they have plenty of great ideas that they're pining to put into production. I want to show that, while refreshing the ICT curriculum is indeed important, the fate of the new grammar is deeply intertwined with that of the old grammar.

Consider some of the great success stories in contemporary technology. Facebook was originally constructed to let students at Harvard share banter, photographs and life experiences. LinkedIn, an online CV-sharing network, facilitates recruitment and lets people advertise their skills and experience. Closer to home, the music recommendations website Last.fm (based off London's Silicon Roundabout--see below) works because we love to boast about the music we listen to. All these services rely on our ability to communicate, and were invented by highly creative people who knew how to code and to hack, but also how people think and behave and interact with each other.

It's true that right now, children's knowledge of technology is a wretched state of affairs: they know how to play video games, how to create PowerPoint presentations, and little else. Dame Wendy Hall, who helped develop the internet's precursor, lamented that the "geek perception of computer science" is putting off girls in particular. But Livingstone's assertion, that "we are probably the most creative nation in the world", is at odds with the parlous state of literacy and critical thinking.

It's clear there's real impetus to put Livingstone's ideas into practice, and market UK plc as a great place to do high-tech business. Specifically, the Old Street roundabout in east London is now the epicentre of Tech City UK, an ambitious attempt to catalyse the formation of our own Silicon Valley. Previously nicknamed Silicon Roundabout, the zone is home to a growing number of technology startups, and stretches right into the Olympic Park in Stratford. Tom Allen of Yearbook Machine, a niche design-and-print house, says there are plenty of positives that come from being based in the area. "Being part of London's start-up ecosystem means there are plenty of opportunities and resources like specialist accountants, lawyers, and venture capital firms, which provide great value for money," he says.

There are also regular events like the Silicon Milkroundabout, where Allen recruited their newest developer, and those at the TechHub, which provide advice and networking opportunities for entrepreneurs.

Allen recognises that encouraging innovation is an important part of education, but concedes that most start-ups are not looking for recent graduates and school-leavers. "With limited budgets, founders are looking at engineers to run software projects," he says, "which means the candidates need a wide range of experiences."

Perhaps the education secretary has gazed towards India for his latest inspiration: the last decade has seen a panoply of programming talent filter out from Indian universities and into Western firms. This is no bad thing, but Britain is not India: if we truly consider ourselves a "leader" economy rather than a follower, we must expect our youngsters to innovate, not just learn by rote the tools of CGI animators and app programmers. And to innovate, children must be able to speak and think confidently, and know enough about the world to figure out where the next Facebook or Zynga will come from. These are skills, happily, we're instilling in young people as part of the Debate Mate programme.

Also located in Tech City is Central Foundation Boys School, which Debate Mate has been working in for several years. Elliot, 14, is a student at the school, and spoke at the 2011/12 programme launch. Of debating in front of 800 people, he said he was "only a little bit nervous". With confidence like that, we expect great things of him in the future, and hope the spillover effects of studying around the Silicon Roundabout will inspire him to be a leader in the high-tech revolution.

For Allen, "kids need to be told why they are learning ICT" as well as being taught how to code: he advises young people to take part in Code Year, a scheme which accelerates development of these skills and will hopefully inspire its participants to think of novel ways of using their new-found knowledge. Underlying all great technological marvels is an instinctive need to communicate--and proponents of Tech City UK and the new ICT curriculum must recognise this need as the guiding force in all that they propose.