Citing falling student enrollments and improved technology, an academic at the British Computing Society asks whether computer science is dead, claiming that there is less need for high-level development schools, in an article published on the BCS Web site in February 2007.
Neil McBride argues that computer studies are a dying discipline, evident in the dwindling student numbers in university CS departments, in the plethora of new jobs in the 1990s that were reduced to a trickle and are only slowly making a comeback, and an ongoing view that IT is a job for geeks and social misfits.
“We long for the days when assembler programming ruled, when programming was exciting and leading edge, when distributed computers were being created and there were uncharted vistas of applications to be written, and single applications such as ledgers and transaction systems transformed businesses. But that is the past. Today the ship is holed below the waterline.”
McBride says that although its easy to think that the problem is that potential students fail to see how exciting computer can be, and that sharp marketing will do the trick, the real nature of the problem lies at the roots of the discipline, where something significant has changed.
In the early days, he argues, the foundations of programming were laid and there was excitement “in making the computer do anything at all.” However, the elements of computer are the same as 50 years ago, little has changed; however, they are dressed up as an object-oriented computer or service-oriented architecture.
“Who needs C when theres Ruby on Rails? …Computer science has lost its mystique. There is no longer a need for a vast army of computer scientists. The applications, games and databases that students once built laboriously in final year projects are bought at bookshops and news agents.”
In addition, McBride blames globalization for a loss of jobs in IT and the declining computer science enrolments is a global problem for developed countries, leaving little reason to develop a product in expensive Western facilities when it can be transmitted almost instantaneously across the globe.
“The old generation needs to look to a new generation, to new approaches. The focus is moving away from system construction. The jobs are in the application of technology. There is a need to be closer to the application, closer to the user, to replace a reductionist, convergent discipline with a complex, divergent discipline.”
So, McBride asks, how many computer science departments will exist in 30 years time? Perhaps a few will support the elite luxury liners. Most will have given way to interdisciplinary study departments and computing service departments, producing innovative graduates who can corral and manage the IT resources organizations need.
Not So Fast
Not So Fast
Not so fast, says Keith Mander, chair of the Council of Professors and Heads of Computing in response to McBrides article: The demise of CS has been greatly exaggerated.
Though it is true that applications for undergraduate courses in CS have decreased about 50 percent since 2001, its value to graduates remains and will continue to for the foreseeable future, Mander counterpoints.
“The pervasive nature of computing, and its wide application, produces a complex employment market for computing graduates, from industrial sectors concerned with the production of foundational hardware and software technology, through stand-alone hardware and software products, industrial applications (particularly, for example, in the financial services, media and telecommunications sectors) and finally to the business solutions deployed in the majority of entrepreneurial businesses serving real human needs throughout the developed world.”
While computer science courses produce graduates that are able to enter any of these employment sectors, says Mander, demand for such graduates is likely to be concentrated in those parts of the industry for which the deep technical knowledge of hardware and software is a prerequisite, or where analytical and logical skills are at a premium. A decline in demand will be seen in areas concerned with business solutions.
If the current trends continued into the future, says Mander, by about 2009 the number of computing graduates produced will be wholly insufficient to meet demand. This is an unfortunate fact, since the computing graduates of 2009 were recruited in the autumn of 2006.
“If academic computing feels vulnerable at the moment, it is not out-of-touch, it is not dying, and it will not die while it continues to innovate. Over the next few years, we shall see new alliances emerging, particularly over the funding of higher education, particularly insofar as it relates to the more vocational subjects like computing.”
There are no silver bullets or magic paradigms that will sustain a whole degree program, he says, but a shared enthusiasm, commitment and sense of adventure prevail, can go a long way.
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