All about the numbers

The Irish Times‘ report on the high rate of drop-outs in computing courses throws a harsh light how well students are being prepared for taking up technology subjects at third level. The short and alarming answer is ‘not well at all’.

Figures obtained by the Times under Freedom of Information showed drop-out rates of 15% in computing courses in universities and 29% at institutes of technology. This at a time when recruiters are expecting a bumper year for wage increases in the ICT sector. What gives?

Drilling into the percentages reveals even more disconcerting results. Limerick IT’s Internet systems development course had a 100% drop-out rate; IT Tralee’s computing with games development course had an 80% drop-out rate; Digital Media Design at Letterkenny IT lost 70% of its first year students. Electronic engineering at IT Tallaght, architectural technology at DIT, computing with media development at IT Tralee, physics with energy and environment at DIT all lost half their intake – and that’s just a smattering of the underachievers.

At the other end of the scale, computing courses at the National College of Ireland and Maynooth University, business technology at Limerick IT and computing at IT Tallaght maintained clean sheets. It seems the harder courses – or more expensive in the case of NCI – had higher retention rates, with universities faring better than institutes of technology.

The Times‘ report explores some valid non-academic reasons for these figures. Non-progression can be down to many factors, including moving to a similar course within the same or transferring to another institution, or taking a year out to gain work experience or travel. Still, you can’t put down losing over 20% of the student body to wanderlust. Something else is amiss.

Learning it on the streets
Last week I visited the BT Young Scientist & Technology Exhibition in the RDS. Though I only managed to make a quick round of the 97 entrants in the technology category I was astounded by the breadth of projects taking in all the beats of contemporary tech: the Internet of Things, 3D printing, gaming, medtech, drones, augmented reality and even new methods of teaching code. None of these fields currently have a place on the science curriculum at second level but have taken hold in popular culture to the extent that they attract plenty of interest on their own.

This is not all good news, however. Irish Computer Society deputy CEO Mary Cleary says relying on enthusiasm alone is leading to many young people making poor choices in choosing a third level course. Subjects that seem like an organic extension of a hobby can feel too much like hard work when brought in to a sober academic environment with an emphasis on mathematics.

“Young people really are not sure what they’re getting in to,” she says. “It’s not all about social media and designing games.”

Cleary says an example of how digital skills can be applied in the classroom is the ICS’ Formula One in Schools competition where second level students from around the country are exposed to Web design and CAD. The competition challenges teams to design and fabricate model cars which are raced at local and national event. Teams are also graded on their ability to market themselves online and through traditional media.

For Cleary, the end game is for technology to become “a graded and examined subject at junior and senior level” – bringing it in-house so the gap between technology as a passion and technology as a career choice can be bridged.

Adding technology to the curriculum brings with it issues of providing teacher training and proper equipment to meet demand. Furthermore the skills chosen for development must be an adequate preparation for further study. How many times have we heard anecdotes about people embracing a subject at Leaving Cert level only to fall out with it completely in college?

If government is serious about developing STEM in the classroom it must embrace accept that while science subjects and maths (thanks to the reintroduction of bonus points at higher level) are performing well, technology and engineering are being ignored, contributing to unacceptable drop-out rates at third level.

It’s not up to the system to fill courses but it should be responsible for helping students make informed choices on their CAO applications. With forms due for submission on 20 January that doesn’t leave a lot of time for this lesson to sink in.

    Are bots the new apps?

    At Microsoft’s Build conferece this year, CEO Satya Nadella laid out a vision for bots, putting them in the middle of interactions between humans and machines. Cortana will become more than a personal assistant for your phone’s content and basic functions, it will become the medium through which we book meals in restaurants and even holidays by connecting with bots over software like Skype. No waiting, no computers, everything automated. “Bots are the new apps,” Nadella said, and when you look at applications like that you can see why. Bots take away a layer of interaction between people and machines, remove waiting times from the user experience and even cut down on the amount of technical savvy the average user will need.

    Microsoft’s belief in bots has advanced so far that it has released Microsoft Bot Framework so developers can get to grips with them and deliver quality products with commercial applications.

    Of course, your experience of bots may vary. Microsoft itself got a dose of reality with the shortlived Tay – a conversational chatbot aimed at Millennials that quickly learned some terrible habits before being pulled offline after less than a day.

    The history of bots is hardly one of mischief and rough edges (looking at you Siri). The marketing campaign for the excellent sci-fi movie Ex Machina at SxSW Interactive in 2015 put the android Ava on Tinder with predictable results.

    Probably the most fun use for bots on the Internet is on Twitter where automated content delivery ranges in usefulness from a list of Wikipedia edits done from Government IP addresses (@irishgovedits), to predictions of the future followed by tweets of people actually doing said things (@thesefutures), Wikipedia Gifs (@gifsofwikipedia).

    Now messaging service Kik – which boasts 275 million mostly-US users – is showing us a bit more of what the future holds by releasing its own bot store. On top of being able to chat away with an algorithm, users can play games, find videos and play games through a number of branded bots developed by content partners like Vine.

    Kik is an interesting case not only because it’s approach closely mimics the conventional App Store model but as it has a user base dominated by 13- to 24-year-olds (a massive 70%) it is in the position of being able to define what could become known as ‘generation bot’. Their’s is a prized demographic and a fun testing ground for brands and developers looking to try new things and create long-term commercial relationships.

    Will we be seeing bots line up against apps for iOS and Android soon? The safe answer is yes. On top of Siri and Cortana, Facebook is looking to turn Messenger into a full-featured personal assistant with plenty of automation.

    I’m waiting on the release of the therapy bot from George Lucas’ 1971 debut feature THX1138. It might be more of a droning cure than a talking cure, but if could be Siri’d it up a little who knows.