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Industry doubts schools’ ability to teach Digital Tech curriculum

Reg Freedom of Information probe shows teachers say plan is Comp Sci-heavy

Feedback from industry groups and educators on the latest draft curriculum for teaching computing in Australia doubts whether the nation's schools, and teachers, are ready to teach a proposed new Digital Technologies curriculum that teachers’ organisations have criticized as too focused on computational thinking.

Australia's draft Digital Technologies Curriculum was released in February 2013 and, as we've previously detailed proposes to make computational thinking a big part of what's taught in Australian schools from Kindergarten through to year 10. Consultation on that draft closed in May. The Register hoped to read submissions made during the consultation period, but the Australian Curriculum Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA) declined to release any.

We found that odd, because Australia's IT industry has for years bemoaned the quality and quantity of emerging IT workers. Just yesterday, the Australian Workforce and Productivity Agency (AWPA) yesterday released a report saying Australia needs more skilled IT workers but that the pipeline is only a mere trickle that won't slake industry's thirst for more, and better-skilled, workers.

With the AWPA report and many similar predecessors pointing out problems with current efforts to create a skilled workforce, we felt it was important to understand if industry felt the ACARA draft was on the right track. We also felt that ACARA's decision not to reveal submissions was out of step with other government agencies' practices. Lastly, we felt it important for submissions to reach the public, as without access to those documents it would be impossible to understand if the final draft has responded to industry concerns and delivers what experts feel is needed.

We therefore made a Freedom of Information request to ACARA, asking for submissions it received that pertain directly to the Digital Technologies section of the draft curriculum. ACARA agreed to provide them, after redacting the details of individuals in the documents.

We were eventually provided with 47 submissions collectively comprising hundreds of pages.

To offer a jumping-off point for those uninterested in detail, the briefest-possible summary of the 47 would report that respondents are generally pleased with the draft and think it is a good step forward, but worry it will be hard to implement in the classroom without more training for teachers, especially in Primary Schools, and that links between this curriculum and tertiary study are poor.

A deeper analysis yields more insights, none less interesting than the fact that five submissions (from teachers’ groups the Australian Council for Computers in Education, ICT Educators of NSW, ICT Education Victoria, the Education Computing Association of Western Australia and Perth’s Wesley College) use identical language to criticise the Draft Curriculum. We hypothesise that one of those organisations has made an effort to make sure ACARA got the same message from different sources.

The submissions’ collective beef follows:

“While supportive of the inclusion of Computational Thinking, we are concerned that all aspects of Digital Technologies are being framed by a single, specific model - Computational Thinking. As this model was developed from Computer Science without consideration of other aspects of computing, i.e. software engineering, information systems development, computer systems analysis, digital/multimedia development, etc. it has resulted in the Digital Technologies curriculum using a theoretical model advocating viewing the world from the theoretical perspective of a computer scientist (Wing, 2010) as a the comprehensive framework for the entire Digital Technologies curriculum."

The counterbalance to that position comes from the likes of Google and the Information Technology Industry Innovation Council, who think the curriculum doesn’t go far enough on teaching coding to kids.

The Council goes in hard, proclaiming that “despite the fact that the Digital Technologies F-10 curriculum is viewed by the Council as a significant improvement on current equivalent Australian curriculum offerings, it still falls significantly short of what the Council believes is the necessary level of focus required on computer science and the teaching of associated coding skills.” The Council wants the following four outcomes in the final curriculum.

  • “We strongly support every Australian student being taught a general purpose programming language in Years 7-8
  • We strongly support every Australian student being taught a programming language in years 5-6 (including visual programming languages);
  • We strongly support the teaching of algorithmic and computational thinking in early primary years;
  • We strongly recommend removing project management from the syllabus completely, and instead including syllabus points on entrepreneurial thinking.

The Google submission rates another mention, as it is one of just two that came from vendors, the other being National Instruments. The latter's offers bland praise, then explains how its products could be used to teach the curriculum. Just why industry, which often bemoans the state of the talent market, could not rouse itself to comment is something we will pursue.

The most common comment in the submissions is that schools and teachers aren't ready to teach the draft curriculum, as teachers lack the training to do so and schools lack to the kit or the connectivity to teach digital technologies effectively. The draft also receives plenty of criticism as incomprehensible to non-specialists.

Technology in Primary Schools (TiPS) a group of primary teachers supporting science and technology teaching in primary schools, explains these concerns nicely, as follows:

“There are too many implications in primary schools to deliver this curriculum as a result of resource requirements. Teachers will need excessive amounts of professional development to adequately implement the Digital technologies content in addition to the acquisition and maintenance of hardware.

The Digital technologies area is too complex in content and language to be easily understood or implemented by non-specialist teachers. The key concepts require specialist understanding of programming and development of digital products and are too highly-placed for student success. Primary teachers will need to be substantially supported to deliver this content.”

Several other submissions query not only whether Primary School teachers can acquire the necessary skills to teach the curriculum, but whether it is possible to find time for it among the rest of the primary curriculum. Others question whether a separate digital technologies curriculum is needed, or if students can be exposed to computational thinking by using computers more during other subjects.

But we digress from the matter of teacher skills, so let’s get into the Australian Computer Society’s (ACS's)view of the curriculum’s applicability to similar view for High Schools which reads, in part, as follows:

“The ambitious nature of the curriculum in this respect is admirable and exciting but points to an obvious and compelling need to quickly provide distinctive professional standing and recognition of ICT educators, development of formal 'teacher training' for ICT teachers and a framework for ongoing professional development for teachers, including the opportunity for industry experience.

In the curriculum’s current draft, it is unrealistic to expect that high school teachers will be able to deliver the curriculum. It is possible that some will not take it seriously (judging it to be inappropriate, unachievable and hard to understand), and that they will instead deliver the program inadequately causing students to be repelled: in effect making the current crisis Australia faces much worse.

In this way, while applauding and welcoming the ambition of the current draft, the ACS would like to see the curriculum demonstrate integrity by acknowledging the significant support that teachers will require.”

The ACS also thinks the curriculum needs to link better to Year 11 and 12 studies, and to tertiary courses, with the following observation:

“The ACS is very concerned that the curriculum does not appear to adequately anticipate tertiary education – something the ACS believes should be one of the key goals of the curriculum. More could be done in the draft to better define F‐11/12 pathways. The ACS believes that Year 11 and 12 studies in computing need to be developed and built on this foundation, to enable students to explore in depth some of the more prominent ICT sub‐disciplines, with an unashamed focus on preparation for tertiary study and a career in the ICT field which is anecdotally the norm for students selecting elective subjects in most other disciplines.”

The Australian Information Industry Association’s (AIIA’s) submission combines these two threads of criticism, stating “The quality of outcomes achieved through the Curriculum will only be as good as the quality of teachers its teachers” before adding “We strongly recommend that the Curriculum is supported by appropriate career support and advice that helps young people understand how these skills translate into relevant, fulfilling and successful careers.”

Some of that education, the AIIA says, needs to be directed towards parents so they “appreciate that its relevance and value is on par to traditional core capabilities such as literacy and numeracy.”

The curriculum is generally judged to be age-appropriate, although a few submissions feel the year 7 and 8 course may be tricky. Information Technology Educators ACT sums up those concerns nicely:

“There are concerns that teachers may initially be overwhelmed by the expectations -­ it is quite a significant jump for many current students (cohort and disparity) at this age. Implementation will need to be sensitive to this, and will be a significant challenge for high school. Transition between primary and secondary schools will also be a concern for schools and teachers.”

The Catholic Education Office of Sydney says something similar, stating that “Significant parts of the content are considered as too demanding for a student at the Year 7 or 8 level.”

Several submissions query whether Digital Technologies merit their own stream. A typical response came from Queensland University of Technology, which wrote:

“We would however argue against the trend to compartmentalise components of ICT. For example, multimedia can be used effectively in both Digital Technologies and Media Arts. The former could focus on the more technical specifications of images and audio files while the latter may be more concerned with their aesthetic application. Image management is also needed in Digital Technologies as part of broader attention to data management. A fine example is this is the current Information Technology Systems (ITS) syllabus in Queensland Secondary Schools.”

ACARA sent us eleven individual submissions, several of which used this text:

“I believe that: - Students should be taught how to create technology, rather than simply consume it. - Students should learn to use and develop technology to solve real-world problems. - Students should be encouraged to think entrepreneurially and strive to lead Australia into international esteem.”

The Reg believes that text may be the result of a campaign to solicit individual submissions. But with just eleven submissions received, clearly the public’s passions have not been inflamed by debate on this curriculum.

If you are excited by the debate, there’s a mountain of extra material and insight in the submissions, which we've popped up here here in a Dropbox folder that holds all the submissions from groups.

We think they're worth a read: that the curriculum has attracted so much criticism for its content and schools' readiness to implement it is surely notable given it aims to make documents like AWPA's new report a thing of the past. ®

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