My conversion happened at Te Kaha, about 65km from Opotiki, where a disused school has been turned into a computer networking training centre (see Cyberwaka pushed out on East Cape). There, looking like the Nutty Professor, Maori Affairs Minister Parekura Horomia launched a programme which he hopes will broaden the employment horizons of young East Capers beyond the Opotiki supermarket and Waioeka Gorge. If the commitment of those behind the programme keeps up, it has an excellent chance of success, and IT will have a foothold in one of the most remote and least prosperous parts of the country.
Until lately I've been disinclined to add my voice to calls for resources to be thrown at teaching IT in schools. If that sounds inexplicable for someone whose job is spreading useful information about computers to as wide an audience as possible -- we're always eager for more readers -- then let me try to justify myself.
For a start, when such calls were raised by people within the industry, the scepticism gene within (the genome researchers have discovered it close to the cynicism one) made me wonder whether it wasn't just self-interest I was hearing. After all, an education policy that provided for a computer for every New Zealand school pupil would be a nice boost for those in the PC business, wouldn't it?
I also managed to quietly poo-poo the idea (I didn't dare do it in public) when it was being advanced by people who'd only recently discovered the wonders of IT (in particular, the internet) for themselves. When it was these breathless newbies talking, I'd say to myself that there was no point adding computing to the curriculum; that by the time the (then) current crop of school kids was let loose on society, computers would have blended into the infrastructure and be no more a source of employment than the electrical wiring or the plumbing (yes, I know there are plenty of electricians and plumbers out there, but their trades aren't taught at school either).
Well, I've been converted, but I don't think I'm quite ready to start evangelising. I've no doubt that self-interest does motivate some of those who advocate spending more of the education vote on computers. And I can't back those who would spend more on computers at the expense of class sizes and not paying teachers wages that reflect their importance to the community.
There's no doubting though, the clamour for more people in the workforce with computer skills. There's a concurrent disappearance of less-skilled jobs as automated processes -- usually involving microprocessors -- replace manual ones. The two trends force one -- even one as sluggish to respond as me -- to the conclusion that we should be training more people in IT, and why not get them while they're young?
Fortunately, others aren't so sluggish to react. I know that lots of computer companies offer support of one kind or another to the education sector and I encourage more to do so. Cisco is the outfit behind the Te Kaha venture, which is training instructors who will give secondary students a grounding in networking on which some will build a career. I'm sure even if Cicso doesn't sell another piece of networking gear because of its involvement, it'll consider its money well spent.
That's because of the all-round good feelings engendered by the programme, which those involved with are positive will be translated into employment and social gains. I don't think anyone at the launch would doubt it. But maybe you had to be there.