Why the iPhone could be bad news for computer science

Today's gadgets don't give the kids much of a chance to tinker, claims academic

Today's gadgets don't give the kids much of a chance to tinker, claims academic

The rise of devices such as the iPhone and the advent of ever more closed IT systems could be bad news for the future of computer science, an academic from Cambridge University has warned.

Despite the smartphone's popularity - with more than 50 million shiny gadgets in the hands of people around the world - the closed philosophy of such devices discourages the kind of tinkering that encouraged generations of computer scientists in the past, according to Dr Robert Harle, assistant director of research at the University of Cambridge's Computer Laboratory.

Cambridge Computer Laboratory

The University of Cambridge's Computer Laboratory
(Photo credit: artq55 via Flickr.com under the following Creative Commons licence)

"We have a generation growing up that's extremely comfortable with technology - no problem using it. But they don't seem to be that interested in understanding it," Harle told silicon.com.

"People can use their iPhone... but they don't want to delve into it, they don't want to understand the depths behind it. And I have a sneaking suspicion this is partly because we've got to the stage now with computing, computer science, IT, whatever you like, that it's now such a black box, such a complex thing that you can't really fiddle in the same way as people used to."

While it might be tempting to believe the rise of mobile computing and apps is encouraging young people to take an interest in underlying technology, Harle thinks the iPhone era may well be hindering efforts to get more young people interested in what's going on 'under the hood'.

"Go back 30, 40 years and the computers that you had at home there was lots of fiddling you could do - essentially if you had a soldering iron you could fiddle something and it was quite a simple understandable thing," he said.

"Now if you take something like the iPhone it's locked down to the Nth degree - you can't really do anything, you have to pay Apple if you even want to program something on their iPhone. So there are a lot of people who are willing to use technology, and are open to it, but I worry that they're not thinking what goes behind that technology - it's just a tool now. You don't really worry about how it works, the fact is it works."

However, on the plus side while today's gadgets might not be fostering the next generation of tech tinkerers, apps and smartphones are giving today's students the chance to make a bit of money on the side.

"iPhone or Android - those are the two flavours of the month," noted Harle. "It's an extremely popular thing to do - a lot of them have a nice side-line in that, in making small apps that do various things. A lot of them contribute to open source projects as well - we have a few kernel hackers for Linux in our midst... PhD students like it a lot. The more these platforms get opened, the more they delve into these things."

The University's Computer Laboratory is ramping up its efforts to recruit more students to the subject - launching a new website to promote it and participating in regional student conferences and open days. Its average yearly intake is around 80 students, down from a peak of 150 several years ago. Numbers declined after the dot-com bubble burst, creating the - mistaken - perception that there were fewer jobs for IT professionals, according to Harle.

Another factor having a negative impact on CompSci numbers is the teaching of ICT in schools, which Harle said is giving school kids the wrong idea of what computer science is.

"[ICT] doesn't feed into what we do - it's not that relevant to us in any way - but all the kids have the perception that it is," noted Harle. "It's giving people a very narrow view of what computer science is... It's not about Word, it's not about Excel, we don't teach anything like that but of course in their IT courses that's pretty much what happens."

Harle is not the only industry professional to criticise the negative impact of ICT classes in recent years. Earlier this year the BCS dubbed ICT "boring" and blamed it for turning young people off IT careers. "There's no excitement for them - there's nothing to excite that spark [about computer science if they associate it with ICT]," Harle added. "They don't associate it with maths which is frankly what we look for most. And loads of them want to study maths or sciences at degree level."

One student recruitment initiative the Computer Laboratory has experimented with recently involved handing out a flat-pack 3D puzzle during a regional conference for young people. They are then encouraged to assemble it into a cube - luring them into a presentation about the subject in the process. The puzzle proved to be a success - doubling the usual presentation audience and boosting the number of female attendees as well.

Cambridge Computer Laboratory website

The Computer Laboratory's new website
(Image credit: CS3 Cambridge)

"It was a bit of revelation," Harle told silicon.com. "They were actually stopping us and saying 'yeah I can do this but what's the point? Why did I have to do this for computer science?' And they were really shocked when they were told that is computer science. Solving puzzles is what computer scientists do. We're interested in people who think logically."

He added: "That's really our goal - to get students to the point where they give it a chance, they ask what is it?"

Asked about the traditional tug of war between academia and the IT industry when it comes to the teaching of tech skills - with industry often complaining computer science graduates don't have the skills businesses need, Harle said: "It is probably true that we could give [our students] more practical skills but if we did that in our three-year course it would come at the cost of teaching them core things that will apply in the future so we tend not to do that.

"We are trying to teach people fundamental skills that are [programming] language agnostic - so they don't just learn to programme in Java, for example, they learn to programme full-stop and they can just take up a language whenever they choose."

However he added the Computer Laboratory would be introducing a fourth year to its computer science degree next year which would "probably" have a more practical element to it.

The University's computer science graduates find their way into a range of industries, according to Harle, with the lion's share (52 per cent) going into the IT sector; around a fifth (15 to 20 per cent) into the banking sector; around 15 per cent going into research; some 10 per cent going into manufacturing; and another 10 per cent to management consultancy. Teaching, public service and media are other areas where its grads end up. "There's quite a diverse range," he said.