Future of computing in NSW schools: Looking bad

crying-faceA key author of the Australian Curriculum: Digital Technologies has issued a damning assessment of plans to integrate computing into design and technology courses for Year 7 and 8 students.

Associate Professor James Curran worked with ACARA as an author of the Australian Curriculum: Digital Technologies. The Board of Studies Teaching and Educational Standards (BOSTES) NSW released the Technology (Mandatory) Years 7–8 Draft Directions for Syllabus Development which is the plan to integrate the Digital Technologies (DT) and Design and Technologies (D&T) subjects into a single NSW Technology (Mandatory) subject for Year 7 and 8.

My take-away from Professor Curran’s analysis of the plan is simple: This is not good. Curran says the syllabus draft directions:

  • subsumes Digital Technologies under Design and Technologies rather than treating them as “two distinct but related subjects” of equal intellectual significance;
  • treats Digital Technologies as just a “technology context” like agriculture, food, and materials (textiles, wood, metal etc) technologies rather than a distinct intellectual discipline;
  • fails to recognise the place of Digital Technologies in both supporting the ICT capability and providing separate Digital Technologies skills that can improve learning in all areas;
  • gives no indication of percentage of time required for Digital Technologies but rather implicitly encourages schools to allocate only 20% or less to Digital Technologies – which will allow schools to maintain the status quo of very little computing in Year 7 and 8;
  • squeezes Digital Technologies even though the Tech (Mandatory) subject is 200 hours but the Australian Curriculum: Technologies was only written for 160 hours (so there is plenty of time to  give it full coverage as a distinct discipline);
  • fails to acknowledge the truly transformative and disruptive nature of Digital Technologies;
  • emphasises design processes (including documentation and management) at the expense of technical skills, craftsmanship and creativity;
  • provides only vague direction without detail for teachers about mandatory coding;
  • fails to emphasise the types of thinking (design, system and computational) beyond a brief mention of them in the preface material.

There’s more, as well as backing analysis, but you get the idea. The great hope of a computing being taught sensibly in Years 7 and 8 seems to be fading.

Now, the plan was issued for comment and so there remains a chance that something will change. But, that said, many people have felt all along that this was where things were heading and I’ll lay my money on this being where things will end up. There will be much fanfare and rhetoric and the word STEM will be tossed about like confetti, but the underlying reality will be disappointing across the State. As now, there will be a few sparks of light amongst the darkness where enthusiastic teachers find ways to give students opportunities; but for most students this is not going to make a significant difference.

Professor Curran’s whole document is worth reading not just for the critique of the current plan, but because it also makes some incredibly cogent points about teaching technology in any context. For example, he points out that there is an enormous focus on documentation and process instead of on creativity and output.

For example, a student might produce a 100-page report with requirements analysis, user documentation, reflective diary and so on, for a software project involving only 10 pages of source code.

This shows that the technology skills are often not valued to the same extent as the design and project management skills. This is a major problem in Digital Technologies because teachers have weaker technical skills and are more comfortable assessing the documentation. This continues right up to HSC Information Processes and Technology and Software Design and Development. Many students have complained that sophisticated software projects have received substantially lower marks than much simpler projects that had more voluminous documentation.

I don’t know what it is about our current education reform processes that seems to continually militate towards loud rhetoric and little useful action, but we’re here again. We have a loudly acknowledged series of problems which includes a need to educate our children in modern technologies. Yet once again we’re failing our children and society as we seem to be unable to grasp the nettle and make real, substantive changes.

The deadline for feedback to BOSTES has now passed. But, if you have more faith in the system than I do, you could still send something through to: Alesha Bleakley, Senior Curriculum Officer, Technology Education, BOSTES, GPO Box 5300, Sydney 2001, alesha.bleakley@bostes.nsw.edu.au.

In the meantime, regardless of the feedback timeline, professor Curran’s analysis is worth reading.

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