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A Reflection on the 1st draft of the QCAA ‘Digital Solutions’ subject:

In October 2015, Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk released a statement that the ACARA Digital Technologies curriculum would introduced to all State Schools in 2016. She also stated that:

“We must ensure students are the digital creators and innovators of Queensland’s future. Learning coding and applying these skills to real world problems will help students to be critical thinkers, innovators and problem solvers.” 

The new Year 11 & 12 QCAA ‘Digital Solutions’ ATAR (replacing OP) subject is now slated for implementation into Year 11 in 2019. It is clear that this subject is a significant part of the attempt to fulfil the Premier and State Government’s vision.

Others have presented this vision and imperative even more strongly. For example, Co-CEO & co-founder of Atlassian, Mike Cannon-Brookes stated recently:

“If we’re not investing in technology we’re completely stuffed as a nation. I think fundamentally it’s about talent — that’s our biggest challenge in this country. Talent, training, and STEM education in high schools is critically important. … if the nation does not employ some form of Computational Thinking in schools, … we won’t have the workforce in 20 – 30 years’ time that we will need. In the UK, kindergarten through 12 do Computer Science education; various states in the US are starting to mandate Computer Science as one of the things you graduate with in year 12 as a mandatory subject like Maths and English, …”

Note that the Premier’s statement does not refer to a small 10-20% of our students learning to be ‘critical thinkers, innovators and problem solvers’, but the implication is clearly that these future-focussed goals are for as many as possible of our students. Mike Cannon-Brookes makes this clear and emphatic when he references the situation in UK in terms of IT being core and mandatory to Year 12.

So how does this 1st draft (of 3) fit the bill so far?

Digital Solutions is effectively a Computer Science course and a replacement for our current IPT course, with very little being carried over, either in content or pedagogical approach from the existing ITS subject (IPT and ITS are the two OP subjects currently being offered).

As a Computer Science course it has great potential. It has a fairly comprehensive Coding focus in Unit 1 (of 4 Units), with Coding in the form of OOP being revisited in Unit 4 as well.

There is a good emphasis on Abstraction as well. Fundamentally, Computer Science is a science of abstraction. Every other science deals with the universe as it is, but Computer Science creates the right model for thinking about a problem and devising the appropriate mechanizable techniques to solve it.

It also covers other coding related areas such as design, UI, addressing user requirements (UX), and so on which is good to see.  There are some parts that may be a little too much detail though and overall the amount of content being suggested may be a little excessive for a 2 year Senior Secondary course.

There are though, some questions as to what is not included; the relationship between some of the content and its placement within the units; and some questions as to the choices made between different methodologies and approaches.

Unit 1: Creative Coding

The recommended programming languages are good suggestions.

There is no one programming language that suits all problems; it is best to suit the best language for the specific issue at hand but obviously students need to start somewhere.

The basic C syntax is the most common (C, C#, java, Javascript) but I would suggest that learning the concepts is more important (i.e. conditionals, scope, loops, etc.).

The emphasis on Data is also hugely important, though there seems a lack of emphasis on both Big Data and the whole area of Data Analytics.

The emphasis on ‘User needs’ is also good. UI/UX design is huge in modern IT and so it is very much welcome to see it strongly emphasised here.

The reference to issues like DRM, accessibility, globalisation, privacy, security is also crucial and appears to be well-catered for.

Some points in Unit 1 appear to hide a lot of detail though: For example, “use code libraries (e.g. video, audio, webcam, input data, text)”, and “test using debugging techniques such as setting break points, variable watching, variable tracing, integration testing, module testing”. Students would most likely only have limited time for a cursory look at many of these.

The clarity and emphasis on the discrete steps in coding such as design, prototyping, testing, etc. is good.

Unit 2: Applications and data

A good focus here on application development. To cater for students not big on coding you could easily spend a lot of time looking at user requirements, designing prototypes on paper/screen, storyboarding, charting data/logic flow, etc. without a line of code being needed. This may be a good thing.

SQL is fairly dominant in terms of Data & Data Analytics/Information Systems, so the focus on SQL seems reasonable though there are many other data storage options growing in use such as “No SQL” which should perhaps be addressed.

Unit 3: Digital Innovation

This is perhaps the best unit in terms of the practical application of IT. It offers a very good range of contexts including Internet of Things, robotics, data driven websites and applications, wearable technology, game development, computer generated media, virtual reality applications and mobile applications. The students will be able to select a context that suits their interests and motivations, and use appropriate Project Management and Design approaches to provide solutions to contextually based problems.

Unit 4: Digital Impact

The main focus here are the three areas of User experience (UX); Automation (with a Machine Learning emphasis); and Security (centred on encryption techniques). Somewhat arbitrarily, Object Oriented Programming is also to be included in this unit, making it potentially too content heavy.

While Machine Learning is a good choice to prioritise in presenting the topic of Artificial Intelligence, without a broader overview on AI as well, the focus on Machine Learning may be distorted and presented in an unbalanced manner.

The introduction of Security in terms of cyphers is good, but some of the detail seems unnecessary and also quite arbitrary. While students should be able to understand what encryption algorithms are, and how they work, I question the need to identity the algorithms.

If they can describe some basic differences between a few that would be great. Most IT pros would only have to pick an algorithm (probably after googling), and use it, if they even have to go that far.

While this draft does address the topic of Ethics, as the course refers a number of times to ‘impacts’ on society, etc., (for example, the draft has ‘evaluate the impacts of the solution on the individual and society’), but I would suggest it does not go far enough, either in terms of Ethics or Professionalism in this domain.

Ethics is an increasingly important area as we see ever increasing automation, with predictions that over 40% of current jobs will be automated over the next 5-10 years.

As Techno-sociologist, Zeynep Tufekci stated recently: “We cannot outsource our responsibilities to machines. We must hold on ever tighter to human values and human ethics.”

Along with all of the new Technology Suite of subjects, the Digital Solutions draft prescribes Problem-Based Learning (PrBL) as the active pedagogical approach, rather than Real-World Project-Based Learning (PBL – also now labelled Authentic Learning). Within the context of this course, PrBL may better allow restriction to single-subject problems and can also make use of case studies & fictitious scenarios. However, PrBL may lead to presenting problems that do not provide sufficient exercise and development of the higher-order thinking skills of critical thinking, complex communication and creative thinking, etc. Also, being less related to real-life, PrBL may not offer the same level of motivation and engagement. The ideal would appear to be a combination of both, so that at least one Authentic Learning task is offered and assessed in Year 12 (perhaps in Unit 3).

With the emphasis on future technologies, such as Machine Learning, etc., topics such as ‘life logging’ ; ‘personal genomics’; location tracking; biometrics, and other areas of cryptography (such as security requirements for app-to-app), Computational Biology and Bio-cybernetics are relevant, and perhaps should be considered.

The development of Augmented and Virtual Reality apps would also appear a good fit to this syllabus.

There are a number of minor aberrations and exclusions/inclusions that need addressing such as in the area of Algorithmic Design, but generally this is a very good first draft of a modern Computer Science course.

Also, with the very recent release of the United States K-12 Computer Science Framework, it would be worthwhile to compare this draft with the overall approach that the US has presented. From a fairly cursory view it would appear that the QCAA’s ‘Digital Solutions’ offers less emphasis on Devices (Hardware; Networking; Troubleshooting, etc.) but greater emphasis on Data generally. It also offers less emphasis on Culture (including Equity, Ethics & Social Interactions), and the study of existing disciplines utilizing Computational Thinking, such as Computational Biology. However, the Digital Solutions course is a much more prescribed and detailed curriculum that clearly presents a much greater depth of coverage and overall offers much greater opportunities for mastery of IT.

Which leads us into the biggest problem with the new curriculum.  Looking back at the quotes I presented in introducing the draft, the obvious problem is that a Computer Science course is not an appropriate course for the majority of senior students. Based on the current enrolment figures for IPT, we cannot expect more than 10-20% of the cohort to enrol in this currently non-mandatory subject.

If we see the IT skills required as classifiable into the three aspects of Digital Literacy; Digital Fluency and Digital Mastery, then the Digital Solutions course clearly offers a course we can classify as Digital Mastery.

Comparing Mathematics in the new ATAR curriculum, we have 4 subjects to be offered: Mathematics Essentials; Mathematics General; Mathematics Methods; and Mathematics Specialist. Under a similar classification we could see these as Mathematical Literacy (Essentials); Mathematical Fluency (General) and Mathematical Mastery (Methods & Specialist).

This clearly caters for the range of skills and aptitudes and even to some degree student interests and future career aspirations.

But in very stark contrast the QCAA will be offering only a Digital Mastery course, and nothing within the ATAR (University pre-requisite) set of subjects.  English and Science though, like Mathematics will also have 4 subjects.

Why in the increasingly technological world, based very strongly on IT are we looking at offering 4 Maths; 4 English and 4 Science to cater for this range of skill development; aptitudes and interests, but only 1 IT subject.

This is, I think, the greatest problem with this new subject offering.




























2 thoughts on “A Reflection on the 1st draft of the QCAA ‘Digital Solutions’ subject:

  1. Hi, have you heard of a program called Flowol, which teaches conceptual programming? Do you think this has a place in the curriculum?


    Posted by Chris Scott | November 8, 2016, 8:31 am
    • Given the very prescriptive nature of the draft, it may be difficult to justify the use of such a program. The current draft does refer to the use of flowcharts so perhaps it could be useful.

      Personally though I am no fan of flowcharts. I think Nassi-Schneiderman Charts, Structure Design Charts or Structure Diagrams as much more effective and useful.


      Posted by thinkingcomputationally | November 8, 2016, 11:39 am

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