Dr Bill Mitchell, director of policy at BCS, has been awarded an OBE in the New Year’s Honours for services to Computing and Artificial Intelligence in Education. Bill talks about the changes to the computing curriculum, what progress has been made, and the launch of the National Centre for Computing Education
How do you feel about receiving an OBE?
Absolutely thrilled and totally astonished. But really, I’m getting recognised for the work that we do at BCS. This is about the organisation, our partners and those we collaborate with as much as anything I’ve done.
What career path did you take?
I graduated from the University of Manchester in 1987 with a PhD in pure maths and then went into computing. It’s what everyone was doing in the 1980’s - when useful computers went from being the size of fridge-freezers to something you could sit on top of a desk. I went on to get a lectureship at the University of Manchester in 1990 – which then as now has one of the top computer science departments in the country. Tell me about your involvement in reviewing the computing curriculum.
I joined BCS as Director of Education in 2009 and was tasked with setting up a BCS Academy of Computing. However, before that got off the ground the issue of ICT in schools became critical. There were concerns that the government believed the whole subject of ICT was redundant and should be removed from the school curriculum, meaning there would be no space on the national curriculum for a computing subject of any kind.
At the time, the Department for Education didn’t really know much about BCS, and when I first started with BCS it was a challenge to secure their engagement with our work. However, we persevered, we collaborated with a wide range of stakeholders - and made sure we talked to the government about the key things that mattered at a national level.
When we did get to talk to them it was as part of a broad coalition. As part of that coordinated alliance, recommendations were made by lots of different people working together putting across the same key messages to government. Whoever the government talked to - whether it was the Royal Society, Royal Academy of Engineering, BCS, Google, Microsoft, BT or ARM - they all gave them the same message: ’computing is an academic discipline that every child should learn, we can help you solve this.’ BCS was at the heart of that discussion thanks to adopting the Computing At School group, the peer-to-peer support network of computer science teachers, which demonstrated to the Department for Education that we were able to help lead on how to develop a computing curriculum that would be fit for purpose in collaboration with all these organisations, especially working with the Royal Academy of Engineering and the Royal Society.
What was the main problem with the ICT curriculum?
The ICT curriculum, for both primary and secondary schools, was by 2010 outdated and wasn’t seen as being founded in a subject discipline. It had been designed in the mid-1990s and by 2010 it was no longer really that relevant. A lot of ICT being taught in primary school was then repeated in secondary school, leading to student disengagement. What had been lost was the idea that computing was a real subject discipline on the same level as maths or physics, history or geography and should be taught that way rather than as a set of low-level skills for using software applications.
There has been criticism of that approach saying that children in school don’t know how to use ICT – what is your reaction to this?
The new statutory computing programme of study still includes those aspects related to learning the skills to use technology purposefully. However, it was put into a broader curriculum that teaches computer science along with information technology and digital literacy, and it should be taught so that each one is given equal merit.
What have been the highlights for you over the last ten years?
The new computing curriculum coming in was a real highlight (made statutory in 2014). It was fantastic because it bought so many organisations together and showed that there were a lot of people who genuinely cared about computing. The amount of effort that people have put in to get this started has been amazing.
Are you pleased with the progress that has been made since the 2017 Royal Society report, After the Reboot, which found that the provision of computer science teaching was inadequate?
There’s been huge progress since the review. We’ve now got the National Centre for Computing Education (NCCE) which is going to be an incredible force for good. It will support teachers and help them get the kind of knowledge and skills that they really need. Although the NCCE has been funded reasonably well for a four-year period, in my view it will need to be funded over at least the next ten-years to really make a systemic change that’s going to last for the next generation.
Looking ten years ahead - what next?
We need to make sure the NCCE is sustainable and continues to do its good work. We need to make sure that our education pipeline works right through from primary school to adult education and beyond so the existing and future workforce can get the digital skills they need. There are currently millions of people in jobs who never had the opportunity to study computing when they were at secondary school. They are at a disadvantage and need help and support in order to get the digital skills to thrive over the next decade.
You are now Director of Policy at BCS, a post you took up two years ago and have had successes working with the government and other organisations. Tell me about the AI MSc pipeline.
The government asked us to review the current state of AI Masters programmes in UK universities. We examined what might be done to strengthen the number of MSc programmes on offer and to ensure they were going to be aligned with the AI sector deal the government had developed. We were able to show there are a lot of good Master’s degree programmes already in place. We indicated how they could be further developed to meet the needs of the UK over the longer term. One area that really needs fixing is the gender diversity issue. If we want to bring more women into AI - there has to be a lot of innovative thinking and a sustained effort to change the culture in computing departments - so they are truly inclusive and welcoming to women.
What is BCS’s role when it comes to advising the government on the ethics surrounding controversial developments, such as the use of AI in facial recognition surveillance?
The government needs to look to expert authoritative bodies such as BCS, and others, in understanding the right balance of where regulation helps and how to make it stick. That way it will result in genuine change and encourage corporate behaviour to be truly ethical rather than paying lip service to regulation in order to avoid being sued. It’s that genuine change of culture BCS can help with because we are the professional body for IT. We are not there to represent the vested interests of large companies or to promote specific benefits to individuals in the IT world. We exist to advance computing for the benefit of the public. We have a real insight and expertise that will help improve what technology can do for people which will genuinely improve ethical behaviour