Programming the future: The difference between 'using' and 'doing' technology

This is an edited version of an article that was originally published in the August 2010 print edition of Teacher.

Our schools and our students are very good at 'using' technology, but if we want to thrive in the 21st century, we and our students need to become very good at 'doing' technology, says Russell Boyle.

Australian schools are good at embracing and using technology. For the past 20 years, schools have invested heavily in laptop computer programs, network infrastructure and electronic whiteboards. The extensive use of email, the internet, school intranets and various classroom management systems such as MOODLE (Modular Object-Oriented Dynamic Learning Environment) has become the norm. Schools in ever increasing numbers are integrating tablet technology and web 2.0 resources into the curriculum. In Victoria, Computer Algebra System (CAS) software and CAS calculators are now used extensively in mathematics classrooms.

Australian students use technology for academic research; for downloading and uploading resources; for taking notes, writing essays, assignments and reports; for presentations that incorporate video and text; and for communicating with peers and teachers from within their school and across the globe. They rely on and use technology at school as much as in their daily lives.

Does that mean your school might produce the next Bill Gates of Microsoft, Bill Joy of Sun Microsystems or Steve Jobs of Apple? The answer depends on whether your school provides the kind of support, resourcing and learning opportunities necessary to help talented young Australians to develop into information and communication technology (ICT) entrepreneurs and software moguls, and, sadly, in many cases the answer is no. You see, while Australian schools and Australian school students are very good at using technology, they are less good at doing technology.

Proportionately few students are able to write or even understand a computer program. Their preference is to remain comfortable in their whatyou-see-is-what-you-get world, where all you need to do is put the plug where it fits and then work out how to drive the latest whizz bang computer application. Most worrying is the trend away from programming and a deep understanding of technology toward producing machine output from ICT products, which were designed and built by overseas software engineers and programmers.

In 20 or so years, our Australian economy will no longer be able to depend on our ability to dig very big holes in the ground to find ore to ship overseas to eager customers with deep pockets. As good as our mining industry is today, in 20 years time our reliance upon natural resources will likely be as redundant as was our reliance on the sheep’s back. We simply have to get smarter.

Schools have a vital role to play in the development of intellectual capital. One area in which we need to improve and become more technologically savvy is in the teaching and learning of computer programming. Not enough Australian students learn and develop an understanding of how technology works or of how the very wonderful web 2.0, for example, is built on computer languages such as Active Server Pages (ASP) or PHP: Hypertext Preprocessor (PHP*) and Asynchronous JavaScript and XML (AJAX).

Can the students in your school write a HyperText MarkUp Language (HTML) or Visual Basic (VBScript) program? Where will computer programming most likely fit in our imminent national curriculum? Will it be accorded sufficient time, emphasis and importance? Possibly not.

Author and staff writer for the New Yorker Malcolm Gladwell observes in Outliers: The story of success that ‘no one – not rock stars, not professional athletes, not software billionaires, and not even geniuses – ever makes it alone.’ If we in schools want to foster and develop the natural talent of our brightest ICT students, turning smart young people from technology users into technology doers, we need to do it together.

In Outliers Gladwell describes a young Bill Gates as ‘precocious and easily bored by his studies. So his parents took him out of public school and, at the beginning of seventh grade, sent him to Lakeside, a private school that catered to Seattle’s elite families.’

It was at Lakeside, notes Gladwell on page 51, that ‘Bill Gates got to do real-time programming as an eighth grader in 1968.

From that moment forward, Gates lived in the computer room.’ There is, of course, more to the story of Bill Gates’ success, but his secondary school played a key role in that success. Without the forward-looking people at Lakeside, Microsoft may never have been born.

Those who shape and control our planet are predominately programmers. Many of them began their careers as nerdy ICTinclined secondary school students. Some have succeeded thanks to the foresight of their school; others have managed to succeed despite their school. If we are to maintain and hopefully improve our standard of living beyond the next 20 years then we in Australia must produce more programmers and software engineers.

It’s time, in my view, for Australian schools to concentrate less on using technology and more on doing technology, and this means the teaching of, or at the very least promoting and facilitating the learning of, computer programming.

* If it bugs you that an acronym for PHP already has PHP in it, let me explain, the first ‘PHP’ in PHP: Hypertext Preprocessor stands for Personal HomePage, so PHP in full is an acronym for Personal HomePage (PHP): Hypertext Preprocessor.


Gladwell, M. (2008). Outliers: The story of success. New York: Little, Brown and Company.

This is an edited version of an article that was originally published in the August 2010 print edition of Teacher. The author biography remains unchanged and may not be accurate at this point in time.