James Curran, Director of the National Computer Science School, explains why digital literacy is critical to maintaining a functioning society and the workforce.
The introduction of Digital Technologies is perhaps the most disruptive curriculum change that Australia has seen in many years, especially in primary. Teachers will need substantial support and professional development to teach it confidently and correctly.
Many educators will be unfamiliar with the knowledge and skills that the new Digital Technologies curriculum entails. The curriculum is ambitious and will stretch teachers, but the learning and engagement opportunities will be rewarding for students and educators who embrace it.
The Australian Curriculum: Digital Technologies is a new subject within the Technologies learning area that Australian schools will teach in Foundation to Year 8, with an elective for Year 9 and 10 students.
Digital Technologies was first endorsed in September 2015. Most jurisdictions have started teaching the subject, with reporting required in 2018. The NSW Education Standards Authority, which sets and monitors teaching standards for all schools in the state, is currently developing the NSW technology syllabuses for K-6 and Year 7-8, with no indication of first delivery – my guess is 2019.
Digital Technologies is a new name signifying a new approach to computing education – with a focus on introducing deeper intellectual disciplines, not just digital literacy or specific technologies.
In the Australian Curriculum, Digital Technologies and the ICT capability explicitly define the minimum expectation that every Australian child has the opportunity to not only develop digital literacy, but also discover the fundamental ideas and skills of computer science and information systems.
Concepts and vocabulary
In my experience as an educator, many teachers are uncomfortable with the Digital Technologies vocabulary.
However, many concepts, such as representation and algorithms, and the umbrella term, computational thinking, are ideas that every teacher has taught implicitly in Mathematics, Science, English, and the Arts.
Many educators are understandably apprehensive about teaching computer programming or coding for the first time (from Year 3). Coding and debugging require considerable effort to master, and teachers will need to invest in developing their own skills to teach them confidently.
However, there are many engaging websites, apps and activities designed to help inexperienced educators teach coding.
Teachers who are prepared to explore and learn with their students, supported by these activities, can shift their role from delivering content to modelling learning behaviour.
What is a digital technology?
The Australian Curriculum glossary defines a digital technology as:
“Any technology controlled using digital instructions, including computer hardware and software, digital media and media devices, digital toys and accessories, and contemporary and emerging communication technologies.
These technologies are based on instructions given, using binary (0 or 1) code, that invariably mean one or more processors are present to respond to these instructions. Computers, smartphones, digital cameras, printers and robots are all examples of digital technologies.
When something is digital, it means that data is stored, manipulated, or transmitted as binary digits (a 0 or 1). A digital system is any system that creates, processes, or transmits data in digital form.
Nearly every intelligent device we interact with is a digital system or is controlled by one. This isn’t just the obvious devices: computers, tablets, and phones. They control everything – from the small (toys, household appliances, and medical devices), to the big (cars, planes, and buildings), and the huge (transport networks, industrial plants and the internet).
Digital technologies have transformed our lives because:
• We can store, process and transmit data in digital form faster, and on a larger scale, than any other technology in human history (speaking, writing, or printing)
• We can describe a wide range of problems for the data we can collect or create, solve them by manipulating that data, and (sometimes) actuate change in the physical world
In Digital Technologies, students not only study the use of these digital technologies (digital literacy), but also the fundamental concepts, skills and dispositions from computer science and information systems. Mastering these ideas gives students the capacity to create and exploit future digital technologies to their fullest potential, rather than simply consume them.
Why is studying Digital Technologies important?
Digital Technologies have completely reshaped how we go about every aspect of our lives:
• Financial: our jobs, online shopping and banking, automated trading
• Social: email, mobiles, Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram, Skype, blogs
• Political: electronic voting, grassroots movements (Arab Spring)
• Recreational: computer games, streaming video and music, augmented reality (Pokémon Go), fitness and activity monitoring (FitBit)
• Educational: free access to information, web search (Google), collaborative resources (Wikipedia), online learning (Khan Academy) and MOOCs, learning analytics
• Ethical: privacy and cyber security, data protection (Facebook, the census)
Technologies affect how we engage with each other as individuals and as a society. For better or worse, Digital Technologies will continue to disrupt our lives.
Teaching Digital Technologies also plays a role in solving challenging problems. It provides students with authentic learning challenges that foster curiosity, confidence, persistence, innovation, creativity, respect and cooperation.
Careers in Digital Technologies continue to be professionally rewarding and well remunerated. Talented IT graduates are in high demand and will remain so for the foreseeable future. At the same time, many service jobs are under threat from automation.
The Queensland DET’s #codingcounts discussion paper predicts 40 per cent of Australian jobs are at more than 70 per cent risk of being automated in the next 10-15 years.
The Australian Computer Society and Deloitte Access Economics report on Australia’s Digital Pulse predicts that demand for ICT workers in Australia is forecast to increase by 80,000 workers over six years to more than 722,000 workers in 2022.
However, Digital Technologies is not just about creating the next generation of computer scientists, software developers or system administrators. Not everyone will become a full-time programmer, but they will find Digital Technologies skills critical in a wide range of other careers.
Intellectual and creative value
Because IT products have transformed many aspects of our lives, it is easy to get caught up in the hype for digital technologies.
In many ways, computing education is also a victim of this transformation. We have made digital systems so affordable, powerful, easy to use, and ubiquitous that students and their parents often think they are digital natives, and know “how a computer works”.
And while we should not undervalue the skills students have developed, such as interacting on social media, their digital literacy has gone backwards in recent years, and it is unclear that they have developed any deeper understanding of computing.
Digital Technologies has a lot to offer as a challenging intellectual and creative pursuit. Unfortunately, the existing focus on digital literacy and technology, rather than deeper concepts and skills, has exacerbated this perception of computing as an easy, unchallenging subject and future career path. This could not be further from the truth – computer science and software engineering are among our most difficult, creative and collaborative pursuits.
Future-proofing the curriculum
The writing process for the Technologies learning area commenced in October 2010, with the draft curriculum published in 2013, and final endorsement in September 2015.
In some jurisdictions, students will not see Digital Technologies for the first time until 2019, and they won’t finish the mandatory bands until 2027 and school until 2031. That means the current curriculum won’t see students finish until more than 20 years after the writing process began – almost prehistoric times in computing terms.
To put it in perspective, 20 years ago, in 1997:
• There were no smartphones – one of the most popular mobiles was the Nokia 5110
• Google was just founded (1998), but AltaVista was the most popular search engine.
• There was no Facebook (2004), Twitter (2006), Instagram (2010), Snapchat (2011)
• Microsoft introduced Windows 98 in 1998
Digital technologies have changed enormously in that time – and changed our world. A curriculum focused on (or even mentioning) specific technologies would be incredibly out of date by then.
What hasn’t changed are the fundamental concepts of computer science and information systems.
Although our understanding of these fields continues to grow, the fundamentals have largely remained the same since the first general purpose computer (ENIAC – Electronic Numerical Integrator And Computer) was developed in the mid-1940s and will continue to be true long into the future.
Students still need to know how to type efficiently and ergonomically (despite speech to text systems), and how to structure a document and use styles correctly, but now they also learn to text rapidly using just their thumbs on their smartphones and can consult or update a Google Doc on the run.
Get started now
The most important thing is to recognise that Digital Technologies is a big change from existing computing education – it is much more than digital literacy (the ICT capability), and so teachers and school leaders cannot take a business as usual approach.
Schools need a strategy to give all relevant teachers the time, resources, and support to engage with the new subject in a meaningful way, so they can develop their confidence and skills in the concepts, technology and pedagogy necessary to fully realise the potential of Digital Technologies and ultimately thrive in a world where mobile devices have become ubiquitous.
Resources to help implement the curriculum
There are many fantastic resources and professional development programs available to help teachers and school leaders get started with Digital Technologies. The Federal Department of Education and Training is supporting a number of initiatives as part of coding across the Curriculum and the National Innovation and Science Agenda. These include:
• the Digital Technologies Hub
• the Australian Digital Technologies Challenges
• the University of Adelaide CSER MOOCs
The Digital Technologies Hub (DT Hub) is an online repository of resources for teachers, students, school leaders, and parents focused on the Digital Technologies curriculum. It is a great starting point for teachers who are new to Digital Technologies.
The DT Hub contains resources specifically created for the Australian Curriculum, including videos explaining the key concepts, detailed lesson ideas for particular content descriptions, and case studies from schools around Australia. It also includes existing resources and activities curated and classified for the content descriptions they cover. Teachers can filter activities by band level, integration with other learning areas, or browse activities by broad topics.
Australian Digital Technologies Challenges (aca.edu.au)
The Australian DT Challenges are free in-classroom activities designed to address the most technically challenging aspects of the Year 5-6 and 7-8 bands of Digital Technologies. They are developed by curriculum experts in the Australian Computing Academy (ACA) at the University of Sydney.
Each challenge provides online and unplugged learning resources, engaging, authentic, real-world problems, modular lesson plans and online training and support for teachers. Some of the DT Challenges are integrated with other learnings areas. Year 5 and 7 students have free access to a learning platform that enables self-paced learning with immediate, intelligent feedback.