Australia wants a thriving technology sector – to get one requires access to a steady supply of good skills. At present the nation is far from self-sufficient; even Atlassian, rated recently as Australia’s best workplace, needs to bring in one in four of its employees on 457 visas.
Serial Australian Governments have attempted to tackle the issue by raising school students’ technology interest and competence; results have been patchy at best.
One of the final tasks that Christopher Pyne completed as Minister for Education and Training was to announce that the Education Council had endorsed a series of changes to the Australian curriculum. This will see the introduction of the Technologies curriculum along with the Coding across the Curriculum initiative.
The Government has stumped up $3.5 million over four years to pay for resources to support teaching Coding in schools. But is that anywhere near enough?
Wind the clock back to 2009. The then Rudd Government launched its $2.2 billion Digital Education Revolution, intended to catapault Australian schools and students into a tech-enriched future by giving the States and Territories funds to invest in technology.
In NSW, public high school students were given a laptop computer and allowed to keep it on graduating Year 12. My offspring were each provided a laptop; my son who leaves school this year was required to use it in a classroom setting just twice in four years.
The intent of the DER was good, but the execution was lacking.
The intent of the Technologies and Coding across the Curriculum part of the Australian curriculum is similarly good, but there are still significant risks around the execution.
Associate Professor Katrina Falkner from the school of computer science at the University of Adelaide recently completed a research project, mapping the resources available against those required to support the new Technologies curriculum and found holes; “The most significant gaps being in pedagogy and assessment.” She is quite clear that there “Is not sufficient funding to support the implementation.”
If $2.2 billion wasn’t enough to create generations of tech literate school graduates, then $3.5 million over four years doesn’t stand a chance. It is, as Professor Falkner says; “tiny,” in terms of its ability to plug the gaps she has identified.
The Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA) which has been responsible for the development of the new national curriculum, is well aware of the challenges ahead as the States and Territories begin to implement it.
Julie King, Technologies lead at the Authority said that all bar NSW have now indicated their intent to adopt the Australian curriculum with some preparing to start in 2016.
To support them ACARA is working with Education Services Australia to develop a portal which will provide access to online resources to support initially teachers, then students and parents. It will coexist with Scootle, ACARA’s own online resource portal. It’s unlikely however that the ESA portal will be up and running before June of next year, and will initially only focus on supporting teachers.
In terms of professional development for teachers required to instruct students in Technology and Coding across the Curriculum – that again falls to the States and Territories – though King said that the Google supported MOOC (massive open online course) offered by the University of Adelaide was available for primary school teachers preparing to teach the Technologies curriculum.
At present it seems that only the Australian Catholic University has a course offering teaching undergraduates the skills to teach the Technologies curriculum, though King said a couple of universities were now collaborating on an undergraduate module that could be rolled out more widely.
While acknowledging the challenges King said that the intent of the Technologies curriculum was to equip generations of schoolchildren with “the ability to respond creatively to a challenge and a problem. To use design and computational thinking to create solutions.”
Noble intents; but there are teaching, resources and assessment gaps to be plugged.
And, even if every school implemented the foundation to year 10 Technologies curriculum in 2016, it would take until 2027 before the first generation of schoolchildren would enter either the workforce or Year 11 of school with all of the new curriculum’s Technologies learning under their belts.
Is there a better way?
Atlassian’s co-founder and CEO Scott Farquhar thinks so. Farquhar made an impassioned call for faster action in an appearance earlier this month on the ABC’s Lateline, saying that rather than attempt to retrain tens of thousands of teachers it might be possible for private providers to teach schoolchildren technology and then have that learning assessed and contributed to their school marks.
His stark assessment was that; “We can either choose to be a producer of technology or a consumer of technology. And I worry that if we don’t invest in our education system we will end up being a consumer.”
It’s a warning that Christopher Pyne, who has moved on from Education to Industry, Innovation and Science will hear for some years yet.