School Improvement Episode 40: Computer education in Australia – the challenges and opportunities

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Thanks for listening to this podcast from Teacher magazine – Episode 40 in our School Improvement series. I’m Zoe Kaskamanidis.

Today, we’re speaking with Dr Jason Zagami, senior lecturer in the School of Education and Professional Studies at Griffith University in the Gold Coast, in Queensland. Dr Zagami is the author of a recent paper published by the Australian Computer Society, titled Computer education in Australian schools 2020: Enabling the next generation of IT professionals.

Since 2014, the new Digital Technologies subject has slowly commenced across all Australian states and territories. Navigating a new curriculum can be challenging, but it can also provide an exciting chance to improve opportunities for students and teachers, and to focus on school improvement more widely.

So, whether you’re interested in student engagement, professional development, recruitment, or clarity on the curriculum, we cover a lot of ground in this podcast, so let’s jump straight in.

Zoe Kaskamanidis: Dr Jason Zagami, thank you for joining us.

Dr Jason Zagami: You’re welcome.

ZK: So, I thought we’d start by jumping straight into your report. In the report, you map out key changes in computer education in Australian schools over the past 50 years. Can you start off by giving us an overview of the key shifts here?

JZ: Yes, well, it’s been about 50 years where we’ve had computing in schools, and in the ‘70s and ‘80s, it was very much around teaching about how computers work, learning about programming, learning about simple networking, and essentially what mirroring what students would learn in a first year university course.

Then as we came towards the turn of the century, we had a big tech boom. And it was very much around everyone learning about the latest- well, becoming web developers. And we shifted our focus around learning about how computers worked, to learning about how to use software – how to use web development software, how to use Office applications. And, at the same time, we were moving in the business field from typing to word processing. So that very much changed everyone’s focus in education away from learning about how the technology works, to learning about how to use the technology.

Then, as we came post- the change to the millennia, we then had the explosion of mobile applications, and mobile devices, and we started seeing a drop in enrolments in many of our computing courses, so we did a lot of focus on trying to attract students, incorporating robots and drones and virtual reality. But we still continued to see a fall in numbers.

Then there was a big shift in the United Kingdom, where they had a lot of criticism of their computing subject (which was very much similar to ours) and they started revising that, and at the same time, serendipitously, we were revising (or creating) our Australian Curriculum. So, we had then a major refocus on Computer Science.

It increased our recognition that it was going to be much more important for students to be able to create with technologies and be innovative, rather than just being consumers of technologies, and using technology that others have created. So that’s been a snapshot of the last 50 years.

ZK: Thank you, you’ve given us such a great overview of the really key shifts there. And so, one major thing to emerge in computer education in the past decade then, is the 2014 introduction of Digital Technologies. Can you tell us a bit about what this curriculum entails?

JZ: Okay, well first off, we need to understand that it’s really two curriculum – in terms of computing. There’s Digital Literacy which has built off what I was just talking about – learning how to use various applications and tools, and that is being applied across the whole curriculum. So, all teachers in all learning areas are learning how to use technology, and teaching students how to use technology in all subjects.

But it was also recognised, as I mentioned, that we needed to focus on the Computer Science aspect of how to create with technology. So, that formed a new subject called Digital Technologies. Now it always had some computing subjects, but they’d generally been as a subset of Design and Technology. And as most Design and Technology teachers were either from a manual arts, woodworking, metalworking background or home economics background, they didn’t necessarily have a strong focus on teaching digital technologies and computing.

So, it was very important to have a separate subject created. Even though it had a lot of similarities with Design and Technology, it was decided to be as a separate subject, and it’s now a compulsory subject from the very first years of schooling all the way through to Year 8, and then as an elective in Years 9 and 10, and then our more traditional computing subjects in our senior years, in Years 11 and 12.

But the fundamental change has been that it’s now developmental. In the past, computing – we could never assume that the students had any prior knowledge around computing skills, so teachers had to always start from scratch each time, in the main. Now there’s a curriculum that sets out what students should have learnt every year previously. And so, teachers can now build upon that previous learning. So that’s really important.

The new curriculum has also forced a level of maturity upon the subject, moving towards teaching about generalisable cognitive skills rather than learning apps, or even learning programming languages. So, just as Science education is not about learning how to use Bunsen burners and things like that (its learning about scientific literacy and understanding scientific concepts) so too has computing now moved toward that sort of level of maturity in terms of developing as a subject area. And these are what we frame as the ‘thinking skills’. And in digital technologies the three main ones are computational thinking, design thinking and systems thinking. And they’re aimed at students developing new ways of seeing the world and addressing challenges that they face.

And I’ll give you an example of word processing. When I did an undergraduate degree, one of the programming subjects I undertook involved learning how … program a word processor from scratch. And I learnt how word processors worked from having to make one. And it was only a simple one, but most software is quite simple when you understand it.

The point though is that I developed a new way of looking at how software works. And during my teaching career, I’ve often worked with business teachers. And they spend a lot of time teaching word processing. And they know the tools back to front. They know all the options and all the capabilities of it. But time and time again, they would come to me with intractable formatting or data storage problems, and I could quickly see the problem and the solution. But they didn’t have a way of doing so. They didn’t have any computational thinking perspective on how the technology actually works. They knew how to use it in incredible detail, but they didn’t understand the technology.

And that’s where these thinking skills are so important; where students can now extend that concept to all forms of software – robotics and AI (artificial intelligence), information systems, the internet. And you can start seeing that students who have developed these computational thinking skills can see the world very differently to those that don’t have such capabilities.

And then we also have systems thinking, where it allows students to see the complex interplay of various systems – many of them digital but also human systems and institutional systems. And then there’s also design thinking, which allows students to see the world as a series of problems that they can solve. And that they have a series of capabilities and processes around solving them.

And these skills all allow students to develop confidence, and not just the capability toward making the world a better place. So, that’s the big refocus of Digital Technologies.

ZK: So, you’ve mentioned some of the differences between Digital Technologies and Digital Literacy – can you expand on these, and also talk a little about why schools might get confused between these two parts of the curriculum?

JZ: Yes, well, Digital Literacy is about how to use various technologies. And we apply that across all learning areas. Of course, we use technology in Mathematics, in Science, in Health and PE – there’s lots of opportunities for students to learn how to use technologies, and also how to use them safely and effectively and so forth. But Digital Technologies is understanding how these technologies work, and being able to create new technologies, be that software or information systems or whatever, in order to solve problems. So a very different focus around the two areas of the curriculum – both important, but very different.

What confusion tends to exist is a result of that focus on Digital Literacy for so long as computing. And many teachers are having difficulties making that transition. Because it was a lot easier teaching about how to use tools, than how to understand and create those tools.

But there’s actually three parts in schools as well – three areas of technology. The third is around educational technologies. And this is how teachers use technology to improve student learning and their own teaching practice. So, teachers have to come to grips with all three of those aspects of Digital Technologies in order to be effective in teaching.

We’ll hear more from Jason after this quick message from our sponsor.

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ZK: So, can you explain the difference between technologies, tools and outcomes in Digital Technologies? Why is this important for all teachers to understand?

JZ: Yes, well, Digital Technologies as a subject has a focus on solving problems using technologies, but the technology itself is not the problem being solved. Technology always needs a context. All technologies are tools, and they need to be used for a purpose. A programming language is a tool, as is a database. And understanding these tools and how we use them, and what we can create with them, and how we can solve problems with these creations is the focus of technologies education. And that really underpins all of those aspects that you’ve just mentioned.

ZK: So, Digital Technologies is currently designed for Years F-10. What types of computer skills and thinking skills are younger students developing and what does this look like by the time they get up to a Year 10 elective? So, I’m thinking here too about the transition barriers that can arise both over the span of the curriculum and for courses taught at senior levels.

JZ: Well the curriculum is very iterative. Possibly too much so. There are some changes in the recent revision to try to differentiate more what students learn each year, but at the moment they build upon what they’ve learnt previously, year after year.

This was a problem in the ‘90s when they were just learning about applications. An example is always they just learn spreadsheets every year, and they just learn a little bit more in terms of the functioning. And that killed the subject very much because it was just too repetitious.

But each year now, students are learning more and more about data and information – how we can collect and analyse and communicate that. And they do that with a higher degree of complexity as they progress. In the very earliest years, it’s about making a little, say, a poster that has images of the sun when it’s sunny and clouds when its rainy, to get the idea that different symbols can represent different bits of information, through to learning binary and about how we can process information in databases and sort things, and the various complexities of what they’re learning in that respect.

They also learn about programming; progressing from doing simple things in a sequence, to including options or what we call ‘branching’ in their programs, through to having iterations, or loopings, or things being repeated and automating processes.

So, these all progressively build upon one another. They’re very conceptual, but they’re taught through a lot of computer games, making computers, using robots. So, for the students, they’re not necessarily learning them as complex concepts, even though those concepts are being developed, they’re learning them through a whole series of activities and projects as they build upon those skills.

By the end of Year 10, students are pretty much where our current Year 12s are attaining. They’ve learnt a number of programming languages, they’re able to solve problems by creating various solutions with information systems or databases and programming, various apps and games and things of that nature.

And that, in itself, is a bit of a problem. … our Year 11 and 12 curriculum now needs to be reconceptualised. Where in the past it assumed no prior knowledge coming in, they’ve now got 11 years of prior knowledge coming in to those senior subjects. So that’s going to force a significant change in what we’re doing in our senior years, and that in turn will force a change in what universities are doing, who also generally assume no prior knowledge coming in. And we’ll have at least 9 years of compulsory computer education, if not 13 or 14 years of Computer Science education as students come into those degrees. And that will reframe what’s possible at various levels in computing.

ZK: And let’s think now about teacher training and retention. Results from the ACS 2021 survey show that over 50% of primary, lower secondary, middle secondary and senior secondary schools surveyed have 75% or more of their computer education teachers teaching out of field (ACS, 2021). Why are numbers of trained teachers so low, and what can schools do about this, especially considering current teacher shortages due to illness?

JZ: Well, the focus on schools became about integration across all subjects. It was an important focus – at the time many subjects weren’t teaching with any digital technologies so it was important to get computing throughout the curriculum. But it was very much at the cost of specialised Computer Science education. And during the ‘90s, even the specialist computing subjects focused on popular fads – making apps and computer games and robots and drones, and virtual reality, because they needed to attract increasing numbers of students.

And so teachers would find the latest computer program or device or tool, and they would teach students how to use it. But what they didn’t do was teach them the fundamental concepts and complex thinking skills, particularly around programming and information systems.

So, we call this the shift from teaching about toys to teaching about concept. And unfortunately a lot of teachers are skilled in teaching about the toys, but there are not many skilled in teaching about the complex fundamental concepts and skills in programming and information systems. So, even with the new curriculum, teacher education is only graduating less than 100 specialist high school computing teachers every year. There’s not enough students coming into the system that want to become specialist teachers in that field.

Many prospective teachers are not necessarily IT-focused. There’s a lot of opportunities in the IT field for those students that are IT-focused to go and pursue those opportunities, so there are fewer coming into teaching with those skill sets and mindsets. So we don’t have a lot of feed into the system. And within the system, our teachers are generally not trained to be able to teach Digital Technologies.

Even in primary schools, in our teacher education programs all primary teachers are now being trained to teach Digital Technologies, but our existing workforce – we have 100,000 plus primary teachers who have never learnt themselves Digital Technologies, in the way that it’s now being expected to be taught. And it’s the only subject where they have to now teach, but they’ve never learnt themselves. All other subjects they’ve had some experience of learning it in their own education. And so it’s a relatively simple process to then teach them how to teach the subject, rather than how to actually learn the subject and then how to teach the subject, which is a much bigger task.

We’ve never really had the need to retrain all of our teaching workforce at once in a whole new subject area. And so, the systems are just not set up to cope with that level of demand. And it’s one of our biggest impediments at the moment – retraining our teaching workforce. It’s slowly being done, but very, very slowly.

And that’s one of the main constraints at the moment around computer education. Our input of new teachers, and our capacity to train our existing teachers and being able to teach in these new ways.

ZK: And when it comes to student engagement, in your report you point out that students currently need to make decisions in Year 8 on whether they will pursue studies of Digital Technologies by selecting Year 9 and 10 electives, and that this gives high schools ‘… only Year 7 and part of Year 8 to engage and interest students in further study of computer education and computing as a possible career path …’ You add that subject selection decisions at this age are heavily influenced by parents. So, how can schools work with parents to support lower secondary students to pursue Digital Technologies in Year 9 and 10?

Yes, well, it’s very much around informing parents. Over time, as students have experiences with digital technologies throughout their primary years, they will hopefully gain an increased interest in further studies in computing – if we don’t become too repetitious and drive them away from the subject.

But we should hopefully see more interest naturally as students have more experience with learning about the subject. But parents have a very strong influence in lower secondary around student subject selection. And unfortunately, most of our parents have gone through learning about computing when it was all around teaching applications, learning about Office applications. And they naturally don’t see much relevance to learning that.

Office applications have become much easier to use, and they’ve been designed so that anyone can learn how to use them without needing specialist training. So, from many parents’ perspectives, computing (as they learnt it), is irrelevant to what their students need. So they need to come to a better understanding around what Digital Technologies is about, around the concepts.

Generally, parents understand the importance of computing; they’re seeing it in their employment. But they don’t see how schools can help support that. They don’t have an understanding of what the curriculum is now, and how it’s focused on that developmental capacity around our students.

ZK: Well you’ve given us a great understanding of some of the challenges around Digital Technologies currently, and a review of what’s happened in computer education over the past 50 years. Let’s finish this podcast by looking ahead to the future now.

You’ve said that schools and school systems could be better prepared to plan for the challenges and potentials of new technologies, such as augmented reality glasses, virtual world metaverses and smart watches. What are some of the fundamental steps school leaders can take to plan and prepare for upcoming technologies, and to keep up with the acceleration of digital technologies in education? And how can schools go wrong here when thinking about a focus on curriculum outcomes?

JZ: Well, virtual reality and smart devices and so forth, they’re going to have an impact, and potentially quite a big impact. But it’s going to be trivial when we look at the impact of emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence. Yes, they’ll have a big impact on the order of the internet – but AI is looking like it’s going to completely revolutionise industries in a way we can’t even envisage at the moment. But even AI is not what I’m really most concerned about.

As we look back over the history of technological innovations, we generally haven’t been very good at seeing the impact of each new wave of technology. Very few saw the impact that personal computers were going to have. Even fewer saw the impact of what the internet was going to do. And even fewer still was looking at the impact of mobile devices. And they’ve all revolutionised things quite dramatically.

There are going to be new impacts that we don’t even see coming at the moment. Let alone the ones we can see coming. And this change is accelerating and the impact of each new wave is becoming more significant and larger.

So, the big challenge for schools and teachers and for students is to learn how to cope with the rapidity and scope of such changes. And that is why these thinking skills are so important. How we need to have students learn how to cope with these changes, and how digital tools themselves will change rapidly over time.

Even programming languages will change. Generally, during the course of a student’s schooling, there’ll be more programming languages developed that’ll be easier and more powerful. And so, the ones that they learn at the start of their schooling will be out of date by the end. Even in a university degree, that is happening.

So, it’s much more around learning these fundamental concepts, and the systems that support and influence change. How to be able to cope with those – that’s what’s so vital in terms of Digital Technologies education.

ZK: You cover so much ground in your report, and it has been a pleasure to touch on some of the key concepts with you today. Before we finish up, is there anything that you’d like to add?

JZ: No, I think that’s probably a good place to finish it up – a warning of what’s to come, but also, there’s a great deal of opportunity for students who understand change and can cope with shaping technologies to create the future. And I see a lot of positivity that can come from this.

Even though there’s great potential for things to go awry, there’s also a lot of great potential for things to go very well, as students embrace technology, and learn how to use it in a way that will make the world better and a place where they will be successful and happy in.

ZK: Well, thank you so much for joining us Dr Jason Zagami, it’s been a pleasure talking to you.

JZ: You too.

That’s all for this episode of School Improvement, thanks for listening. If you haven’t already, be sure to subscribe to our podcast channel on Spotify, Apple podcasts, SoundCloud, or wherever you get your podcasts from, so you can keep up to date with our latest episodes. If you want to keep listening now, you can access the 200+ episodes already in our archive. And, while you’re there, we’d love it if you could rate and review us.

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Australian Computer Society. (2021). ACS response to the 2020/21 Australian Curriculum Review.

Zagami, J. (2022). Computer education in Australian schools 2020: Enabling the next generation of IT professionals. Australian Computing Society.

Thinking about your own school, how are students supported to engage with computational thinking at an early age, and how well are they being set up to pursue further studies in computing?

As a teacher, how well do you understand the difference between Digital Technologies and Digital Literacy? What professional development opportunities are available to you, to grow your knowledge and skills in this area? Is there any expertise that already exists within your school that you can learn from?