Australia’s first digital technology curriculum is on its doorstep, and anyone who has been paying attention in educational circles for the last two years knows the words computational thinking and coding are all the rage right now. So what are the implications for educators, who are likely to have had little exposure in their training as to how to teach computer science to children, and are therefore somewhere between frightened or excited by what lies ahead?
The Dawn of a New Curriculum Approach to Technology
The official stance from the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA) of the Technologies Curriculum at the time of writing is that the curriculum is “available for use; awaiting final endorsement”, even though it has been in this state for well over a year now.
The current education minister, Christopher Pyne, has done little to ensure the endorsement, particularly after a review of the entire national curriculum was released in October 2014. Political agendas and duress aside, it is ACARA’s intention that schools commence partial adoption of the curriculum, with full adoption expected by 2017.
The Technologies Curriculum encompasses two interconnected areas: Design and Technologies, where students use critical thinking to create innovative solutions for authentic problems; and Digital Technologies, where students use computational thinking and information systems to implement digital solutions.
According to ACARA, the aims of the syllabus are to ensure that students can:
- create, manage and evaluate sustainable and innovative digital solutions
- use computational thinking and the key concepts of abstraction to create digital solutions
- use digital systems to automate and communicate the transformation of data
- apply protocols and legal practises that support safe, ethical and respectful communications
- apply systems thinking to information systems and predict the impact of these systems on individuals, societies, economies and environments.
What is most promising about the way this curriculum is written is the way it has embraced technology as a holistic approach to thinking and exercising creativity. The traditional teaching of ICT in schools has usually been around the idea of integrating tools to assist in other subject areas, which is the intention of ICT as a general capability in the Australian Curriculum. Instead, the Technologies Curriculum paves the way for teachers to work with children as young as Foundation on pattern recognition and classifying data in contexts that they can understand, which gradually builds up to the development of students with a strong understanding of computer science by the time they reach Year 10.
The content structure of the Technologies Curriculum can be viewed at australiancurriculum.edu.au/technologies/rationale
Noticeable in the Digital Technologies component of the new curriculum are the ideas of computational thinking and coding, which are introduced to students in early primary school.
The idea of coding is not to have students simply churn out computer programs. Rather, it is about assisting them to identify and analyse problems, and develop innovative and creative solutions, which will ultimately help contribute to a global society improved by technology.
Computational, system and design thinking all require the ability to examine problems clearly and to break them down into manageable parts in order to systematically analyse a process to best solve them. It encourages the design of several solutions that can be applied in broad contexts. This type of problem solving – or thinking – is highly valued in the outside world. The ability to analyse problems and come up with clever solutions is the kind of thinking that continues to push the world forward, yet oddly enough, it has not been taught in a deliberate and defined way – until now!
Through the Code.org initiative, more and more advocates are championing the idea of coding in schools, from celebrities like will.i.am to the Silicon Valley elite. The worrying trend is that the number of computer science graduates is currently not meeting demand, yet alone in the future, where the demand is expected to further increase as the world starts to crave employees who are skilled in using technology to design products and solutions. Mark Zuckerberg is quoted as saying, “Our policy (at Facebook) is literally to hire as many talented engineers as we can find… the whole limit in the system is that there are not enough people who are trained and have these skills today”.
Coding can have the stigma of an unexciting operation that takes place in a dark room with nerds sipping on soft drinks, huddled around glowing screens and punching in lots of ones and zeros. Once upon a time, it was necessary to have a tertiary degree to operate punch-card machinery and to develop lines of code for programs that ran on mainframe computers. Through the advancements of technology, and particularly in the way in which users can interact with it, anybody of any age can now code.
Put simply, coding is about writing and following instructions. When a set of instructions are written for the computer, it follows them. Any time a person has explained to someone how to bake a cake, or typed a sum on a calculator, or organised a filing cabinet in alphabetical order, he or she has essentially been designing an algorithm to execute a desired action. Coding is teaching a computer how to run a sequence of events; for the reason that a computer can execute steps a lot faster than a human can.
Technology is starting to automate a lot of tasks that can easily be replicated by traditional, human-driven processes. For this reason, a shift in the modernised and globalised world has started. For example, take Japan’s Toyota production line which, through the use of machines and robots, can assemble a car in 18 hours to specific client orders; or the ambitious Google Self-Driving Car Project, which promises to safely transport passengers from A to B without requiring the commuter to lift a finger; or the use of computer-assisted self-checkouts at the supermarket.
The overly critical may say that technology is taking over jobs, which to some extent is true. However, more accurately, it is disrupting jobs and changing the supply and demand for workers. Jobs for production factories will still exist, as will people who drive cars, as will people who work in supermarkets.
What will probably be true is that these jobs are far more likely to require the skill sets of engineers and coders, who are skilled with technology and in programming, to be able to deliver solutions. Those who can build robotic arms to weld alloy will be more sought after than those who can assemble nuts and bolts. Those who can write programs that analyse traffic patterns for automated cars will eventually be in more demand than taxi drivers or chauffeurs. Those who can design computer-assisted checkout systems will replace those who manually scan items for consumers.
It is for this reason that everyone needs to embrace the new Technologies Curriculum for the good of their children and the future of Australia as a technologically relevant country.
How to Support Computational Thinking, Coding and the new Technologies Curriculum
Code.org: launched in 2013, Code.org is a non-profit organisation that is dedicated to expanding participation in computer science, particularly by increasing participation amongst women.
Hour of Code: an initiative of Code.org, Hour of Code is an annual event that promotes coding in primary and secondary schools across the globe. The coding tutorials can be completed online and have modules suitable for all ages.
Code Club Australia: a nationwide network of free, volunteer-led, after-school coding clubs for children aged nine to eleven.
Code the Future: aims to forge crucial links between the technology industry and education.
Bebras Australia Computational Thinking Challenge: Bebras is an international initiative whose goal is to promote computational thinking for teachers and students in Years 3 to 12, and is aligned with the new Digital Technologies Curriculum.
Computer Science Unplugged: is a collection of free learning activities that teach computer science without having to learn programming first.
Careers with Code: is a publication by Refraction Media and Google that promotes computer science careers in design, education, science, health, arts, media, law and business (see refractionmedia.com.au/careerswithcode/ or search for Careers with Code on Google Play or iTunes App Store).
CSER MOOC: the Computer Science Education Research Group at the University of Adelaide have developed a number of open, online courses designed to assist teachers in addressing the new digital technologies learning area.