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Microsoft at Bett: UK has "so much more to do" in IT education

As the exhibition stands were opening up for the penultimate day of Bett 2013, the UK’s annual tech education tradeshow, ITProPortal weaved through the sprawling ExCel Centre in East London to sit down with Steve Beswick, Director of Education at Microsoft UK.

“Essentially we want to find the next Bill Gates or Steve Jobs, because they’re out there,” Beswick enthused from the outset, clearly heartened by the progress being made in the quest to better integrate IT into schools across the country, and in turn nurture new computing talent.

But Beswick would repeatedly emphasise just how much work still needed to be done in the UK to maximise the technological resources available and start producing a greater number of trained IT professionals. This week’s news that computer science will become part of the English Baccalaureate (earmarked as a replacement for GCSE qualifications) was duly welcomed by those who have been campaigning for better IT education at schools, though Beswick admitted, “Actually we think it should start earlier.”

Arguing that children from the age of eight or nine should be introduced to computer science, Beswick said IT training must broaden drastically as “there’s still 100,000 jobs out there that aren’t fulfilled in the UK that need computer science-type skills.” Given the current job climate in recession-hit Britain, such a statistic seems particularly glaring.

“Could we do better? Of course we could. There’s so much more to do,” Beswick said. “We’ve got some great IT going on, we just need to get it right across the whole system.”

And while Microsoft may be entering the equation from the standpoint of a product vendor, the education director stressed that his team’s work goes beyond simply throwing new devices at teachers and hoping for progress. Improving the training of staff and addressing the national curriculum itself are priorities for Beswick, who says the system as a whole requires work and it is then about “embedding IT into that.”

Microsoft’s innovative gaming platform, Kodu, is proving to be a major part of the company’s educational strategy. Kodu enables children to design and develop their own games using a simple visual programming language, and share their creations with the Kodu community.

“Gaming is a way you can teach people,” Beswick said, explaining how Kodu doesn’t merely help budding game designers, but aids mainstream learning through the literacy and numeracy tasks that are incorporated into the programme.

Microsoft is now taking the project further by launching the Kodu Kup, where children between the ages of seven and 14 are charged with developing their own game, matching the themes of Mars exploration, the environmental issues around water, or retro arcade gaming.

Introducing coding in such a context aims to inspire children from a young age, before they take computer science to the next level with formal education in school. The cycle is completed, Beswick says, when students are then trained to fill those 100,000 jobs.

Projects like Kodu aim to set the wheels in motion for IT education, providing a tool that perhaps hasn’t been so available for young children in the past. Such innovation, alongside the reams of similarly innovative products and campaigns showed off at Bett this year, suggest the UK is working harder than ever to keep its people developing as quickly as its technology.