Why education system reforms are required
In the first instalment that was published recently, I noted the previous mountains that we as Bermudians have climbed throughout our history, successfully.
I believe that our response to this challenge will be no different for once Bermudians perceive a clear picture of the challenge ahead, they invariably mobilise to deal with it.
There are Bermudians — some based here and others overseas — and Bermuda residents who have seen the future and have made it their life mission to assist us in preparing for it.
With respect to the recommendations I am prepared to advance to meet the challenge ahead, let me begin by stating that the answers will not just come from Government or the private sector or for the most part from our deliberations today.
It must be a change that is as much bottom up as it is top down and must be led by change agents at every level.
Some of those Bermudian change agents have been doing great work, often behind the scenes, to ensure that Bermudians do get it. There are Bermudians like young Jahde Eve, now based and working in New York City who is the founder of Code 911. Code 911 sponsored a coding “Hackathon” in Bermuda last year. The Hackathon was an event to teach computer coding skills to young Bermudians generally between the ages of 9 and 16.
In this regard he was ably assisted by fellow Bermudian Damion Wilson, an IT specialist with RenaissanceRe, and others.
The event, which was hosted at XL House in Hamilton was fully subscribed, attracting about 80 youngsters. The room also looked like Bermuda in that it reflected the racial and gender demographics of Bermuda. It was for me a revelation.
This is where we need to start. We must begin to prepare our young people now if we are going to shift this culture to one which values lifelong learning and critical thinking skills.
We need to assist and encourage our young people to take advantage of the workshops that take place at their schools and in the broader community. We need more of these organic events, more frequently, and we need to encourage and support these young men in their efforts.
I believe both the public, non-governmental and private-sector stakeholders should offer their support with the aim of expanding the outreach so hundreds of our young people can have the benefit of these experiences. And it must serve our underserved communities all up and down the Island if we are to avoid the same sorts of outcomes previously highlighted by the Columbia University report as we move forward.
The Government should facilitate discussions to make this happen and find the funding to do so.
A revolution requires revolutionary responses:
• Firstly, I propose we commit to teach coding and programming to at least 500 children between the ages of 9 and 15, on a yearly basis by way of a national target, in partnership with non-governmental and private-sector entities.
• Secondly, I propose that Government, by way of its investment in our future, underwrite where possible in conjunction with private sector and other entities the purchase of tablet computers and broadband access for those young persons and their families particularly, in our underserved communities to help facilitate their participation and immersion in science technology engineering and maths.
There are other Bermudians and Bermudian residents who in their quiet, yet determined way are spreading the gospel of change. Another pioneer who must be mentioned is Niklas Traub, who is of the opinion that we need a “Manhattan Project” in order to jump to the forefront of the technological revolution that is before us.
Mr Traub, along with colleagues, is one of the key organisers of “TEDxBermuda”. The acronym TED stands for technology, entertainment and design. Mr Traub and his team are committed to exposing Bermuda to cutting-edge global talent with a technological bias but also in bringing the best of global thinkers to our shores.
TEDxLancaster in the US has sponsored talks on the benefits of “free software” in schools as it continues to seek to empower students and prepare them for the future. The students in question were given full access to their hardware and allowed to create in an open-fun, uninhibited fashion. The result: they ended up developing solutions to such tasks as installing operating software on roughly 1,500 laptops.
Last year TEDxBermuda hosted one of the creators of IBM's “Watson”. In previous years individuals such as John Scully, ex-CEO of Apple, who is also an expert in synthetic biology and 3D printing, was featured.
If there is a down side to the TEDx story it is that Mr Traub and his team have expanded a lot of effort reaching out to our schools, yet not enough of our students are taking advantage of the opportunity, even with the provision of free tickets to the TEDxBermuda events.
This has to change and I am challenging the Minister of Education, the Commissioner of education, school principals and parents to reach out to TEDxBermuda and others in the private and non-governmental sectors and collaborate in building a better mousetrap to get our young people excited about this world-class opportunity.
The TEDx motto is “Ideas Worth Spreading”. A PLP government would be committed to both objectives.
Damion Wilson and Jahde Eve believe that the best way to teach computer science in Bermuda either within an institutional setting such as a school or outside of that environment is to appeal to the curiosity and interest of our youth, particularly with respect to our young black males.
They need — as Jahde Eve — relates it, “self-autonomy” to build projects of their own and to figure things out in a way that will engage their imaginations. They believe that our education system is based on what they call a “consumer format” as opposed to a format that highlights the “producer/creator in every child”.
They posit this as part of the reason for the historically high non-completion rates in terms of graduation of our young black males. But there are others tilling the ground and planting the future even as we speak.
• Code Tuna offers educational camps teaching coding during school holidays.
• Technology Leadership Forum has been running a summer programme aimed at those wishing to study IT and interested in pursuing it as a career.
• Open Bermuda is an informal group of free software enthusiasts.
• The celebrated “Waterwise” school-based sailing programme delivers best-in-class sailing instruction, utilising the Optimist class, while thoroughly immersing our young people in STEM learning.
In most cases these initiatives, as well as others not named here, are facilitated by one or two committed individuals who often lack adequate resources and time.
Let us — as stated — partner with them and ensure that the resources they need on behalf of our young people are there for them.
Believe it or not there is a “Free Software” movement in Bermuda and it is growing. Many of its proponents say it can produce myriad socio-economic benefits and enhance our competitive advantage for Bermuda over the long-term, including at the government level, if widespread adoption of free software can be achieved locally.
John Gill, an IT specialist and industry leader who has worked at the highest executive levels of Bermuda's insurance and reinsurance industry, in a recent paper on the topic, said: “Indeed free and open software has been critical to the success of the internet. At the same time, the internet itself has facilitated the development of free software by providing a means for developers to collaborate on their projects.”
Mr Gill, in particular, has advocated free software and its benefits. I encourage those interested in more fully understanding the diverse benefits free software can provide in the areas of education, business and government to access the following link: http://peakrisk.github.io/peakrisk/stories/opportunities-for-bermuda-in-the-21st-century.html
Mr Gill notes the city of Munich, Germany, in 2002 moved its computers to the free Linux platform and has saved millions of dollars by doing so over the last decade. They anticipate those savings will continue. He writes that the Munich experience can provide a good test case for countries like Bermuda especially in light of our current fiscal challenges.
I contend that all ideas should be on the table. There is a technological revolution taking place and only a concomitant reformation of our education system can address that challenge. As noted our government also has a direct role to play in our response to that challenge.
That is why educational reform must include — as our 2025 reply to the budget stated, and as delivered by the Shadow Minister for Finance David Burt — the development of a “world-class education system”.
That reform includes not only the long overdue elimination of middle schools but also the acknowledgment that in a world driven and dominated by information technology that we must commit to the continued evolution of our curriculum “with an increased focus on science, technology, engineering and math”.
But by committing to STEM learning and upping our game in this regard, we must design the curriculum in a way that appeals to the curiosity and interest of our youth. This will be critical for those exposed to STEM learning in our schools at the introductory level.
Messrs Eve and Wilson remind us that computer labs with 20-30 stations for teaching coding skills can be enhanced by the making of simple games. This would be the way to inject play into the exercise and sustain interest on the part of the young student at the introductory levels and powerfully emphasise its inherently creative nature.
And we cannot get there with a government that makes a decision to gut all tuition subsidies to attend Bermuda College on the part of our young students, at a time when that investment, in light of the evidence, is needed more than ever.
However, when one door is closed by the OBA, another can be opened and I encourage parents to consider the lower-cost option represented by the prestigious University of the West Indies. Moreover, there are also a number of free and/or no tuition options at top centres of learning around the world. German universities for example are largely free, even for foreign students, and a growing list of its degree programmes are conducted in English.
The entrance requirements are rigorous — after all it is Germany — but American students and others are flocking there in droves. One American student during a recent interview said that he and his parents spend about 700 euros per month inclusive of rent, food, entertainment and textbooks.
And these universities are renowned for their excellence in the areas of science and technology.
• Rolfe Commissiong is the Progressive Labour Party MP for Pembroke South East (Constituency 21) and the Shadow Minister of Human Affairs. This is the third in a four-part series that encapsulates a paper on the impact of technological change that was presented before the House of Assembly.