University of Canterbury computer science professor Tim Bell was so concerned about the lack of guidance around the integration of digital technologies in schools. that he developed his own teaching resources. These included the award-winning CS Unplugged project, which is used in schools around the world, and the CS Field Guide designed for New Zealand high schools.
Bell says the newly introduced Strengthening Digital Technologies l Hangarau Matihiko curriculum means kids will better understand the digital world they work in, rather than just being passive users of technology.
“In the digital world there are so many issues – privacy, artificial intelligence, the changing nature of employment. We want to give kids the tools to grapple with those ideas.
“It will make them not just better technologists but better citizens,” says Bell.
Year 10 objective
The objective is that by the end of Year 10, as they head into NCEA, all learners should be able to use and create digital technologies to solve problems and take advantage of opportunities.
They will be equipped to apply their understanding of digital technologies to all aspects of their lives and careers, whatever path they follow.
That’s similar to Year 10 mathematics, where kids are expected to know the basic principles and can use it as a tool.
Studying digital technologies through to Year 13 should prepare learners if they want to go on to the specialised study they will need for a career in the industry.
There is national interest in boosting understanding of digital technology. New Zealand doesn’t want to import all its technology; it wants the ability to create its own.
The challenge until now has been to get the workforce without having to do most of the recruiting offshore.
Bell says the bursting of the dotcom bubble at the turn of the century put a lot of students off the idea of IT as a career, not just here but overseas. For a decade the number of students doing computer science at university declined, although it has since turned around.
“It’s still like that. Demand has outstripped the supply of people who have bothered to do IT,” Bell says.
“The real point is a lot of kids miss out on a career who probably would have loved it, so companies outsource overseas to get stuff done.”
Among those who missed out were women and Māori and Pasifika, who are underrepresented in the industry but who would be at least as good as the people who did get the swipe cards.
New curriculum provides vision
“The curriculum can give kids a vision. At the moment if you ask a teenage girl if computer science would be a great thing for their future, most would say no. If they were exposed to it, their attitude could change.
“As a university lecturer, students say to me: ‘Why didn’t people tell me how cool this is? I pushed it out during high school’.”
There is a huge variety of jobs in IT that match a wide variety of skills. Some jobs come down to listening to people and understanding their problems. For others it’s troubleshooting in the code or the systems.
In some places the change has been pitched as teaching all children to code, but Bell says the New Zealand approach isn’t just about people who write programs for computers; it’s often about the thought process involved.
“You can use games and break down processes in ways that lead to computations. In particular for junior classrooms, it need not even involve devices.
“Most schools balance in the middle. There are lots of ways to teach the concepts without a device but in the end if kids want to write software, it is good to do it on the device.”
Bell says getting to this stage has taken years, with industry bodies putting a lot of effort into trying to communicate to the Ministry of Education what the real issues were.
Changes overseas have also helped, such as the call in 2012 from UK Education Secretary Michael Gove for coding to be taught to five-year-olds and Australia’s introduction of a computing curriculum.
Bell says the biggest challenge is getting the teachers up to speed, with Core Education running a readiness programme on behalf of the Ministry and plenty of professional development funding available.
“People say ‘kids know all about technology,’ but they don’t,” he says.