Offering the right computing courses is a delicate balance of internal and external factors, but how should educational institutions decide?
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Choosing computing curricula: Industry needs vs education constraints

Offering the right computing courses is a delicate balance of internal and external factors, but how should educational institutions decide?

Computing education plays a vital role in preparing students for the future job market, especially in the fast-paced world of technology. Before students attend university, they have various options for computing qualifications. In fact, the 2022 British Computer Society landscape review of Computing qualifications in the UK reports that fifty-one vocational and technical qualifications in computing are available before university study.

Qualification concerns

However, not all of these qualifications are of the same quality or relevance to employers’ requirements. Some employers find that education leavers lack work preparedness, highlighting the importance of work experience that aligns with employers’ needs. Meanwhile, an employer skills survey found that around 30% of skill-shortage vacancies were attributed to a lack of digital skills.

The Department for Education has set a goal to fund only high-quality education, intending to align post-16 education with employer-led standards by 2030. However, qualification specifications encompass more than workplace components, as other factors influence the teaching and learning environment. Several organizations and committees are actively working to enhance computing education by offering guidelines, certifications, and support for teachers and students. Nevertheless, given the abundance of organizations and qualifications, a pertinent question arises: How do educational institutions determine which computing curricula to offer?

Choosing computing curricula

Research with English educational institutions found that various factors have been identified as important for choosing computing curriculum. One of these is using labour market information, where educational institutions gather data on technological trends and industry needs to inform their curriculum choices. Although important for all subjects, this is pertinent in the fast-changing computing landscape.

Another essential aspect is providing qualifications that align with industry needs, ensuring students acquire real-world experience and up-to-date skills. Certain colleges, for instance, prioritise qualifications like digital T-Levels and apprenticeships, which incorporate workplace components, making them more attuned to industry demands. The skill set of teaching staff also plays a significant role, as educational establishments may design courses based on the expertise of their educators. Moreover, the availability of resources, such as funding, equipment, and network infrastructure, directly impacts the curricula that can be offered. Educational institutions must also address the diverse needs of their learners by providing a varied curriculum to accommodate different levels of academic ability.

A final aspect to consider is the familiarity and positive outcomes that may result from teaching certain courses or content. In this regard, a strong emphasis on performance tables and rankings could influence curriculum choices. However, this focus on performance and student outputs might divert attention from innovative and industry-relevant content.

It could be argued that four main aspects influence the selection of computing curricula: labour market information, qualification relevance to industry needs, availability of resources, and qualification attractiveness. However, each educational institution may prioritize some aspects more heavily than others. The crucial question then arises: What should be the primary focus?

Choosing Computing Curricula: Industry Needs vs Education Constraints
Figure 1. Four pillars of curriculum choice
Credit. Journal of Further and Higher Education

An economic focus

Choosing the appropriate computing curricula is critical, but there is limited specific research on this topic. Nevertheless,  early research has suggested an economic argument concerning computing curricula. It posits that education should facilitate learners in engaging with curricula that support the economy and enable them to meet future skills requirements.

Therefore, offering up-to-date courses with practical assessments and work experience can be highly valued. The digital T-Level, for instance, appears to align well with industry needs. However, it’s worth noting that even though it includes industry placements, it also involves some written exams that may not directly relate to real-world job skills.

An economic focus is why some educational institutions may emphasise labour market information. The challenge lies in deciding whether to consider broader national trends or focus on the specific needs of the local area. For example, there might be a nationwide demand for certain jobs, but there may be limited opportunities for students in those fields locally.

Moreover, failing to pay attention to labour market information could result in outdated courses that do not align with industry requirements. Given the continuous technological advancements and evolving industries, education must keep pace to ensure students are well-prepared for the job market.

An education focus

Despite the availability of labour market information, educational institutions are bound by their contexts. They face constraints in terms of finite resources, equipment, and staff expertise. While there might be a demand for more advanced qualifications or specific equipment, offering them as part of the curriculum may not be feasible. Consequently, educational institutions often prioritise focusing on curricula they can successfully deliver within their specific situations.

An educational argument asserts that technology will continue to evolve incessantly and will not reach a standstill. Consequently, education should emphasise preparing students for forthcoming societal demands. Lifelong learning becomes pivotal in this pursuit, as students must be equipped to adapt to future changes, regardless of specific content or topic areas.

Some research has indicated that a curriculum is a mere guide to education. Consequently, the most crucial factors in selecting courses are those that contribute to effective and successful teaching and learning environments. It extends beyond merely following labour market trends or industry relevance.

Teaching computing poses challenges such as constant change, inadequate investment, and a shortage of skilled staff. These external factors significantly influence how educational institutions operate and decide their courses. However, the primary focus should always be on the students and their best interests. Curriculum choices hold substantial sway over their education and future, underscoring the critical need for institutions to make informed decisions despite the diverse challenges they may confront.

Conclusions

As technology advances, curricula must adapt, and labour market information becomes crucial in guiding decisions. However, modifying curricula also necessitates adjusting teaching methods, which can be time-consuming. Educational institutions must strike a balance between offering courses based on labour market information and industry relevance while also taking into account their unique situations and preferences.

Concentrating solely on one aspect may result in a less effective learning environment. To make more informed choices, educational institutions should consider internal and external factors and future societal needs. Given the ever-changing nature of technology, continuous research is necessary to streamline complex decisions and identify best practices in curriculum choices.

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Journal reference

Allison, J. (2022). The who, how and why of choosing post-16 computing curricula: a case study of English further education colleges. Journal of Further and Higher Education46(10), 1447-1464. https://doi.org/10.1080/0309877X.2022.2088269

Jordan Allison is a Senior Lecturer in Computer Science and the Academic Course Leader for the Digital Technology Solutions Apprenticeship at the University of Gloucestershire. He earned his PhD at the University of Gloucestershire and is a Fellow of the Higher Education Academy (FHEA), a Professional Member of the Association of Computing Machinery (MACM), and a Professional Member of the British Computer Society (MBCS), the Chartered Institute for IT. His research interests primarily focus on computing education pedagogy, curriculum design, and teacher development, with an emphasis on qualitative research.