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Review of ACARA Digital Technologies Curriculum

Not Just A Re-view but a Re(turn)View: – Travelling backwards in more ways than one

The Review of the Australian Curriculum – Final Report (10th Oct. 2014) by the reviewers Dr Kevin Donnelly and Professor Kenneth Wiltshire AO, was publicly released a few days ago.

The recommendations in this review have been met with great dismay and concern by almost all leaders in Australia’s Information Technology arena, from educationalists, both teachers and researchers, to ICT representative bodies such as the ACS.

Where til now, there had been a general excitement and confidence in the direction the ACARA Digital Technologies was designed to lead us (while still acknowledging some of the major hurdles to be overcome), this review has presented a major stumbling block to this progress with a potentially devastating effect on the national economy in the longer term.

You would not expect this shocking outcome when you first start to read the section of the Review that deals with Digital Technologies.

It starts off with the encouraging remarks that:

“Although many submissions to this Review noted the considerable difficulty in getting agreement on the focus and content of this subject there is a high level of satisfaction with the way the consultation was handled to create the final version. There is also strong support for its inclusion in the Australian Curriculum – particularly from professional bodies associated with computers and technologies – and a belief that it appropriately captured the critical elements of the learning area and provided a sound curriculum foundation which could accommodate future instances of digital technology.

The Australian Computer Society (ACS) says: “The ACS strongly endorses the creation of the digital technologies subject and notes the important distinction of this subject from the role of ICT as a general capability. Both aspects are critically important in the education of students, but the distinction between them is vital for individual students and for Australia as a nation.”

Yet despite this hopeful introduction that acknowledges the perceived importance of the proposed curriculum in Digital Technologies, the Review then goes on to almost totally dismantle the whole curriculum, and instead recommend that the Digital Technologies not be separated from the rest of the ‘Technologies’ discipline (more commonly known as Industrial or Manual Arts – subjects like Metalwork; Fashion Studies; Engineering Technology; and Food Studies).

Even worse, the review argues that Digital Technologies not be introduced until Year 9!

It is now being widely and generally acknowledged that Computational Thinking is at the heart of the modern IT-based economy, and that therefore that teaching of Computational Thinking and its core element of Coding (programming) is foundational to our educating our children for an active and successful role in the 21st Century world (for some background on the significance of this new IT based economy see ‘Edutech 2014 & Disruptive Innovation’).

In contrast what does this review state regarding Computational Thinking?

It is only mentioned twice:

  • “Given the ever-changing technologies he feels that it is important that content is not prescribed and that the curriculum promotes computational thinking and knowledge – and he [Mr Callil – the reviewers ‘expert’] thinks the current document allows for this, although all depends on teacher capabilities and the fact that they will need professional development.

So the reviewers are arguing that we already have a curriculum that promotes and teaches Computational Thinking! This is totally false. There is NO explicit reference to Computational Thinking (CT) in any of the current curriculum documents at either a national or State level. To expect the teaching of CT within the existing syllabuses, especially at the Primary and Junior High School levels is very unrealistic, both with regard to political/pedagogical, as well as, time constraints.

  • “His comparative exercise was with Finland, Singapore and Ontario… The major difference is that the Singapore curriculum does not touch on computational thinking until students are aged 16 (this may now be outdated). The Singapore home economics course is more centred around production at the macro level.”

If this ‘expert’ looked a little more carefully and widely, he would find a very significant shift over the last couple of years in most Western countries (in particular the USA & UK) towards an IT curriculum that is emphasizing CT (see my Scoop It site for many documented examples of this).

Also the very mention of something as totally irrelevant as Singapore’s ‘home economics’ course should cause alarms bells to ring loudly! Home Economics (or ‘Food Studies’) is NOT part of the Digital Technologies curriculum (even though CT could would be ultilised effectively and beneficially within this course of study).

The only positive and important recommendation that I can see that would not be a retrograde step is the call for better and more Professional development, as seen in this comment:

  • If digital technologies is to be studied from F–8 the importance of professional learning for teachers of digital technologies cannot be overestimated. Professional learning for both digital technologies and the ICT capability needs to be ongoing, sequential, systemic and regular.
  • To ensure academic rigour and to better prepare and enhance teacher competencies and expertise for secondary teachers of digital technologies, Mr Callil recommends additional training in the understanding of the pedagogy of contemporary learning.

Of course, given the general tenor and recommendations of the rest of the Technologies section of this review, I see very little likelihood of ‘digital technologies … <being> … studied from F–8’, at all, so the rest of these recommendations seem irrelevant as well.

Among the concluding recommendations we read:

  • This learning area should be introduced from Year 9.
  • The two strands of design and technologies should be integrated.

Both these recommendations are seriously flawed. To leave the introduction of Computational Thinking to Year 9 is to very seriously disadvantage Australia’s youth and Australia’s future prosperity in a world of employment and industry being dramatically impacted by the IT revolution.

To suggest that the two strands be integrated is to retain the status quo for a number of States such as Queensland and NSW, and therefore to leave IT or ‘Digital Technologies’ seriously floundering as it is now, as the ‘poorer cousin’ to the ‘Industrial Arts’ type courses in the current Technologies KLA.

The above is just a few initial thoughts on this Review which has staggered me with its lack of foresight, wisdom and vision. It leaves me even more concerned for the nation’s future and with Ian Jukes words of warning now ringing even louder!

To show that these concerns are not just mine, please see below for three other early commentaries on this review:

Depriving our kids of the digital basics

PUBLISHED: 18 OCT 2014 02:20:00 | UPDATED: 20 OCT 2014 18:23:46

 Until a week ago, a new curriculum was on track to give every Australian school student an understanding of information technology: how it works and how to use it.

The aim was to equip ­Australian children for life in a world where IT is everywhere. But this scheme was upset last Sunday when federal Education Minister Christopher Pyne released his review of the national school curriculum.

Digital technologies was to have been taught to every school student from the beginning of primary school to at least year 8. But this subject will be cut, although some elements will be taught in other classes, if the recommendations of the review are implemented.

One of the two reviewers, University of Queensland public administration professor Ken Wiltshire, said the subject should not be offered until year 9, then be optional to students.

The other, education commentator Kevin Donnelly, said digital technologies need not be offered at all, but be optional for each school or school system.

If either of these recommendations were accepted, it would be “a travesty”, says University of Sydney IT professor James Curran, head of the National Computer Science School.

“If we are not educating our kids in these things from early on we will be confined to the ranks of countries that don’t take technology seriously,” says Curran, who helped develop the digital technologies curriculum which is now under threat.

HOT ISSUES

Until now, the fate of digital education has not been the focus of debate in the review of the national curriculum, a federal-state project which the conservative side of politics believes was unduly influenced by the former Labor government.

One hot issue has been whether to tackle literacy and numeracy problems in schools with more instruction in maths and English. Others are whether to give more recognition to the Judeo-Christian tradition in history teaching, or to remove the puzzling insistence on embedding three overarching themes – indigenous issues, Asian engagement and sustainability – into every subject.

The latest development keeping the topic alive is the news that the review’s English curriculum subject matter expert, poetry professor Barry Spurr, was suspended by the University of Sydney on Friday for allegedly sending racist emails.

But IT educators and IT professionals want us to respond to a new message: that our children’s prospects of good jobs, and even their ability to successfully navigate life, is dependent on getting a comprehensive education in digital technology.

They say the new digital technologies curriculum will be a quantum leap for Australia, elevating us to third or fourth in the world among countries which are best preparing their children to thrive in the digital age.

What if we don’t adopt it? “We’ll be back with the status quo, which is where the rest of the world is,” says Griffith University ­lecturer Jason Zagami, who is president of the Australian Council for Computers in Education.

In global terms, the leaders of the pack are the United Kingdom and Estonia. The UK has just introduced a new curriculum which introduces computer coding to children as young as five, and the government says it wants to make sure “all pupils can understand and apply the fundamental principles and concepts of computer science.”

Estonia also begins teaching IT in the first year of school, showing kids how to create their own computer games.

In the US, the education system is not uniform, but in many states IT education is also mandatory from the start of school.

We in Australia should also start teaching IT early and continue it systematically year by year, says Zagami. This is hugely beneficial to students in building their knowledge, particularly for girls, he points out.

IMPORTANT AS READING

Why is a digital education so critical? President of the Australian Computer Society, Brenda Aynsley, says it is becoming as important as reading and writing.

“If you are not digitally literate, if you are not capable of understanding how the world is compiled through computers and the internet and the technology you use, then you are at the receiving end, you are a passive passenger,” she says.

She emphasises that we now live in a world pervaded by digital technology which is becoming ever more concentrated.

The next looming change is the “internet of things”, in which every appliance, machine or gadget that we use will be connected to the internet. “Fridges will be telling the supermarket what has to be ordered. We’ll have no control over that if we don’t understand how it’s all happening.”

The University of Canberra’s Iwona Miliszewska, who is president of the Australian Council of Deans of Information and Communications Technology, agrees, saying that kids need to b e more than just consumers of technology.

She believes that children, at the very least, need to know how to consume technology in a meaningful way. And, if they gain an understanding of technology at a young age, some will go on to produce it rather than just consume it.

That will resonate with every parent whose children’s attention is locked on to computer games, funny videos and social networking.

“Why not engage in creative problem solving? Children have such a supreme capacity to surprise us and they know no boundaries,” Miliszewska says.

Similarly, Zagami believes that computer education in schools will lead to more people who, as adults, have that most elusive of qualities – an understanding of what goes on inside technology’s black box.

“Most people in our society, if they have any problems with computers, simply have to defer to experts or think of them as some sort of magical process,” he says.

“But we want to have a population that can create their own solutions and their own business opportunities around that.”

Teaching students how to write computer code is part of the solution and this week the federal government said it would put $3.5 million toward developing coding in schools.

Several software packages have been built to introduce school-age students to the concepts of writing code, among them ScratchHopscotchAlice and Blockly.

HOW COMPUTERS WORK

But it’s not the programming itself that is important, says Zagami. “It’s learning about how computers work and how to solve problems with computers through that.”

Australia’s planned digital technologies curriculum, which is under threat from Pyne’s review, includes coding, but it goes further.

Unlike the UK curriculum, which is very code-based, Australia’s takes in more general problem-solving and a broader understanding of technology.

For example, older students might be given a real-world scenario. They could be asked to plan for a situation in which a bushfire breaks out and threatens an urban area. The students put themselves in the role of the emergency services and create a plan to use technology to get up-to-date information about what’s happening and get the word out to people who are in danger.

Simon Kaplan, director of skills and industry transformation at NICTA (Australia’s research centre of excellence for information and communications technology) says the new curriculum has been “carefully and cleverly constructed”.

“It was designed to ensure that computational thinking and design thinking become part of the arsenal we teach to students as they go through the school system,” he says.

Kaplan says the curriculum is designed to emphasise that “IT is really a creative industry”. So it is strong on innovative thinking, and encouraging students to break down barriers between subjects to find solutions to open-ended problems – the sort that all employees are expected to solve in 21st-century work places.

“What worries me is that [if we reject the new curriculum], we are preparing people for the jobs our parents had instead of the jobs our children will have,” Kaplan says.

But what does business think? Business groups know the curriculum is important but they haven’t engaged in detailed debate about individual subjects.

A ‘CRITICAL CAPABILITY’

Jenny Lambert, employment, education and training director at the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, says digital literacy is clearly a “critical capability” for business.

“Common sense would suggest that school students be exposed and increasingly skilled in digital technologies from a young age,” she says.

However, whether that is achieved via a dedicated digital curriculum, embedding it across other subjects, or a combination of the two is for the experts to decide, she says.

But if the review’s recommendation is rejected and the digital curriculum is introduced, another problem looms. Are there enough skilled teachers to implement it?

“It is absolutely the biggest hurdle. You’ve got a chicken and egg problem,” says Curran.

But he adds that it is similar to the problem of reintroducing the teaching of grammar to schools, when most teachers did not learn grammar themselves.

The answer, Curran says, is more professional development and in-service training for teachers. “If we’re not giving teachers time to learn and remember their passion for learning, then I find it difficult to believe they can connect with kids,” he says.

In any case, regular training and ­professional updates should be normal for IT teachers because the field changes so rapidly.

Meanwhile, the IT industry continues to find it difficult to find enough adequately trained people to fill its many job vacancies. They are not coming through the system.

The lack of students going into IT careers is the elephant in the room, says Zagami.

According to Kaplan, at any one time the ratio of science to IT job vacancies is about 1 to 25. And unless schools teach students to be producers as well as consumers of digital technology, those jobs are going to be very hard to fill.

The Australian Financial Review BY TIM DODD http://www.afr.com/p/national/education/depriving_our_kids_of_the_digital_DesIhUtAsAWGZ48zDpTrBO

Australia bins standalone school computing curriculum

Curriculum review sees no need for discrete digital technologies subject in primary school

By Simon Sharwood Posted in Government12th October 2014 00:39 GMT

The review of Australia’s national curriculum has found that “While there is a clear case for the introduction of the ICT capability itself to run right through the whole Australian Curriculum, we are not convinced that a separate subject of the kind that has been designed needs to be mandatory at any level.”

The recommendation is a reversal for those who promoted the creation of a national digital technologies curriculum, and suggested it be taught as a discrete subject. Drafts of the curriculum proposed teaching programing – even agile development – in early High School and embedding computational thinking in the curriculum from kindergarten to year ten (the third year of High School in Australia).

The review notes that digital technologies teaching is, “By and large … not mandatory elsewhere, and certainly not in the primary years” and says that “We are persuaded by the views of the subject matter specialist that, in primary school, it could be introduced, in part, in other relevant disciplinary areas, with an integration of the two strands of design and technologies.”

The “other strand” referred to is the “technologies” curriculum, which many readers would understand as “industrial arts”. The digital technologies curriculum, prepared under the previous government, was a discrete but derivative curriculum that included many elements of computational thinking – including programming – and also included teaching of the many digital tools now used by industry in fields beyond computing.

The subject matter expert is Philip Callil, listed on LinkedIn as director of IT and eLearning at Yarra Valley Grammar.

Calil’s key reconsiderations, as included in the review, are as follows:

  • Consideration should be given for renaming ‘digital technologies’. It is a name that is not readily identifiable as a commonly known term in the IT industry, Australian tertiary education or education systems in Canada, Finland, Singapore or the UK.
  • Consideration should be given to the integration of design and technologies into other learning areas in the F–6 curriculum and for the commencement of design and technologies as separate subjects (either as compulsory or as electives) in lower secondary rather than primary years.
  • If digital technologies is to be studied from F–8 the importance of professional learning for teachers of digital technologies cannot be overestimated. Professional learning for both digital technologies and the ICT capability needs to be ongoing, sequential, systemic and regular.
  • To ensure academic rigour and to better prepare and enhance teacher competencies and expertise for secondary teachers of digital technologies, Mr Callil recommends additional training in the understanding of the pedagogy of contemporary learning.

The report also interprets Callil’s analysis as follows:

“Mr Callil expresses a general concern about the aspirational nature of the curriculum – ‘the technologies learning area structure is admirable and may be achievable, sustainable, and robust in Years 7–10 but it is likely that its structure in F–6 will contribute to the “mile wide and inch deep” dimension of the ‘crowded curriculum’.’

Given the ever-changing technologies he feels that it is important that content is not prescribed and that the curriculum promotes computational thinking and knowledge – and he thinks the current document allows for this, although all depends on teacher capabilities and the fact that they will need professional development.”

The devolution of the digital technologies curriculum is not a surprise outcome.

Government rhetoric has used the term “crowded curriculum” for some time. The government’s official response [PDF] to the review states that “The Review heard considerable evidence of overcrowding in the curriculum and it was the primary issue raised by principals, teachers and parents, and the broader education community. While overcrowding exists across much of the curriculum, it appears to be a particularly prevalent in the primary years.”

Mr Callil’s conclusions, as summarised from pages 208-211 of the review, seem to have similar concerns. Callil and the review also share the opinion, which we reported when assessing feedback to a draft of the digital technologies curriculum, that Primary School teachers just don’t have the training or the time to deliver the curriculum.

The recommendation to spread ICT through the primary curriculum therefore looks somewhat pragmatic, as the review suggests teachers already struggle to find the time to teach the basics. Retaining an intention to teach more technology, even without a discrete subject, is not the worst possible outcome. And it is consistent with the position Australia’s year-old goverment offered to The Reg last October.

The decision will, however, likely disappoint those who saw the introduction of a discrete digital technologies curriculum as a step change that would engage future generations with digital technology in a profound way by making the use of computers – not just software – a core part of education from the earliest years through to late the middle of high school. While some of that thinking was self-serving – industry is keen for more skilled workers and wants the education system to deliver them – there was also an optimistic streak among some backers of the curriculum. That optimism suggested a population able to manipulate data and wield computers might become more creative and entrepreneurial, to the benefit of the nation.

Your correspondent is writing this on Sunday and has already commenced inquires among stakeholders about their response to the review.

I’m also trying to learn what this change will mean in terms of what ICT topics will be taught in classrooms, and when that teaching will start.

Watch this space. – http://www.theregister.co.uk/Print/2014/10/12/australia_bins_standalone_coding_for_kids_in_schools_course/

ACCE Reply to Australian Curriculum Review: Digital Technologies (Press Release)

Australian Council for Computers in Education has deep concerns with inconsistent support for school computing in the governments response to the Review of the Australian Curriculum

The Australian Council for Computers in Education (ACCE) is the national professional education body for the teaching of computing in Australian schools. It comprises representatives from all state and territory associations and the Australian Computer Society (ACS).

ACCE has considered the Review of the Australian Curriculum Report and Supplementary Material, and is deeply concerned by some of the recommendations being considered by the government in the Initial Australian Government Response.

While ACCE acknowledges concern about a perceived overcrowding of the primary curriculum, there are many ways to address this other than a return to 19th and 20th Century curriculum priorities. It is an opportunity to refocus the curriculum on the 21st Century and to acknowledge ways in which subjects can be taught together in the primary years. This interdisciplinary collaboration in industry has stimulated many of the great innovations we now enjoy in modern society.

The USA and UK have identified the teaching of the computing discipline as a national priority. It would be a threat to Australia’s economic future if Australian students are excluded from being able to fully contribute to such innovations by a curriculum that limits their learning about digital technologies to a comparably superficial treatment in the senior years of schooling. Students in other countries will be advantaged by a developmental curriculum throughout their schooling. We do not expect students studying mathematics or science to start their studies in upper secondary for the same good reasons.

It is perplexing that the lack of support for computing as a discipline in the report is inconsistent with the Australian Government’s recognition of the importance of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM). ACCE was encouraged by the government’s investment of 12 million dollars in the Restoring the focus on STEM in schools initiative that includes “the introduction of computer coding across different year levels in Australian schools leading to greater exposure to computational thinking, and, ultimately, expanding the pool of ICT-skilled workers.” ACCE is subsequently dismayed that this is not reflected in the proposed curriculum models.

For Australia to have a world class, 21st Century curriculum, students should have the opportunity to engage in meaningful ways with how they can develop digital solutions that improve their lives and solve problems that increase in complexity over time. To deeply embed this understanding and capacity to creatively develop digital solutions throughout their schooling, and in doing so, enable them with the ability to make considered study and career choices that involve the many facets of digital technologies, be they in information technology, science, the media, service, construction, medicine, arts, entertainment, law, teaching, politics, or any other career.

ACCE strongly recommends the government consults more widely with industry and professional groups such as the Australian Council for Computers in Education (ACCE), Australian Computer Society (ACS), Australian Information Industries Association (AIIA), and Digital Careers, and relevant government departments, to resolve how Digital Technologies can be included as a core subject in a 21st Century Australian Curriculum.

Dr Jason Zagami
President of the Australian Council for Computers in Education (ACCE)
http://acce.edu.au/acce-reply-review-australian-curriculum-press-release

 

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