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Equipping kids with digital skills key to future success by ACS President Brenda Aynsley

Wednesday, 15 Apr 2015

This article first appeared in The Australian online on Tuesday April 14, 2015. You can view it by clicking here.

Renowned developmental psychologist Jean Piaget defined the principal goal of education as one “to create individuals who are capable of doing new things, not simply of repeating what other generations have done”.  
 
In today’s complex, information-driven society, nothing has greater potential to deliver on Piaget’s vision than the integra­tion of information and communications technology knowledge and capabilities into every level of our education system.

Our ability to develop computational thinking and core ICT capabilities in our next generation will not only equip them to leverage and create innovative technologies but will be critical to their ability to compete and thrive in the global knowledge economy. In the past few years, as part of an update of the national school curriculum, the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority has developed a comprehensive digital technologies subject that will operate from kindergarten to Year 12 to teach the fundamentals of com­puting science and problem-solving.

Based on enduring ICT principles rather than specific lan­guages or software applications, the subject has been designed to give students the ability to critically analyse challenges and  create practical solutions lin­­guistically and technologically.

The Australian Computer Society, through the involvement of its ICT educators board, has played an active role in collabor­ating with ACARA to develop and refine the content and processes for the new material. We congratulate ACARA on its consultative and considered approach to this exercise, and endorse the results of its efforts.

The digital technologies subject has been ready for more than a year but its widespread introduction has been delayed by consideration of the review of the Australian curriculum, which was released by the federal government in October last year.

In the interim, some states are moving ahead with pilots or limited rollouts, but others are waiting for a formal response from the Education Council, which comprises all the state and territory education ministers.

I strongly urge the Education Council to formally endorse the new subject and to encourage its national implementation as an integral part of the national curriculum when it next meets mid-year.

ACS ICT educators board director Ralph Leonard says the proposed dual-pronged approach of teaching a digital technologies subject as well as developing students’ general ICT capabilities will give our kids an advantage over nations such as Britain, where they focus primarily on coding in schools.

A comprehensive program of professional development for teachers will be a critical factor in the delivery of the new subject. The British government engaged the British Computer Society to introduce appropriate professional development resources to prepare its teachers for the new software programming subject. I know the ACS stands ready to play whatever role it can in supporting the Australian rollout.

According to the final ACARA review report, released last Aug­ust, “the importance of professional learning for teachers of digital technologies cannot be over-estimated.

Professional learn­ing for both digital technologies and the ICT capability needs to be ongoing, sequential, systemic and regular.”

To assist teachers in delivering the digital technologies material, the Computer Science Education Research Group at the University of Adelaide has developed an online course that is freely available on its website.

The initial offering is for foundation through to Year 6 teachers; another course for years 7 and 8 teachers will be launched in May.

Adelaide associate professor Katrina Falkner says 3000 teachers have undertaken the course, with more than 1000 continuing to engage in the online community, sharing their ideas and content with colleagues and peers.

“The overwhelming experience for these teachers has been that the material is very easy and many were surprised to find they were already 70 per cent of the way there,” she says.

“These early adopter teachers are already impacting over 25,000 students, teaching them computational thinking and finding wonderfully creative ways to apply these concepts across other parts of the curriculum.”

Falkner says the digital technologies subject is essentially about solving problems and learning how to logically structure a sequence of instructions to achieve an outcome.

“By giving our students new ways of thinking and the basic coding tools to create their own solutions, we empower kids to become really creative,” she says.

“A 12-year-old boy in the US built a braille printer using a Lego kit and writing his own software because he was interested in discovering how it worked. Who knows what other creations we will see as a result of this new teaching approach?”

If we get it right, the potential rewards are enormous. In 2013, PricewaterhouseCoopers predicted that Australian technology start-ups could contribute $109 billion to the Australian economy and 540,000 new jobs in the next two decades.

Equipping our children from a young age with effective reasoning and innovation skills, and supporting them with access to technology will go a long way to unlocking this potential.

Brenda Aynsley is president of the ACS, principal consultant with ICT management firm, Oz Business Partners and chairwoman of IFIP’s IP3 International Professional Practice Partnership.