Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Rebooting Computing at School

By Simon Grose

We can devote more early-stage teaching effort to computing but will Aussie kids click onto it?

In 2007 Kevin Rudd parlayed the cool mystique of computing into an electoral ploy by promising that every student would have a free laptop.

Bill Shorten’s version is less extravagant: teach basic coding from the early years so that kids get used to shaping their computing experience rather than just using what is available.

“Our education system could well be creating basically proficient ICT users but very few technicians, innovators or developers.”

That is the judgement from Dr Sue Thomson of the Australian Council for Educational Research in a research paper published in July. Drawing from international and local data, she shows Aussie kids in some contrary positions in the e-landscape.

According to a 2013 International Computer and Information Literacy study (ICIL) that compared Australia with 17 other countries (including Germany, Switzerland, Norway, Denmark, Hong Kong and several developing economies, but excluding the US), Australia had the highest percentage of students who used computers at school at least once per week (81%). At home, computing was ubiquitous with more than 99% having a computer at home and 98% with internet access.

A 2014 ICIL survey found that the average ratio of students to computers at school was 3:1 in Australia compared with a global mean of 18:1.

Despite their easy access to resources, the performance of Aussie kids was good rather than excellent and for teenagers it flatlined. Between 2005 and 2011 there was a significant increase – from 49% to 62% – in the proportion of Year 6 students meeting or exceeding the Proficient Standard. But a small increase in Year 10 students meeting that standard was not significant.

In 2011, the National Assessment Program found that female students significantly outperformed male students in ICT literacy at both Year 6 (22 points difference) and Year 10 (14 points). Despite this, Year 6 males had significantly higher levels of interest and enjoyment in ICT than females, and that gap widened in Year 10.

Males and females both reported declining interest in computing between Years 6 and 10, and while females were significantly more confident than males about their basic ICT skills, male students were “significantly and far more substantially” confident of their advanced ICT skills.

Putting the effects of gender and puberty aside, like most STEM subjects it seems that a “nerd” cohort gets inevitably hooked on computing while the great majority find other subjects more interesting.

Shorten’s electoral pitch to prime all students early could get more of them hooked, but he is not actually promising anything new. The current national curriculum sets out pathways to early ICT achievement. For example, by Year 4 students are now expected to be able to write two versions of simple instructions for a programmable device and design digital solutions using algorithms that involve decision-making and user input.

So at least Bill’s computing in schools pitch is cheaper than Kevin’s.

Simon Grose is Editor of Canberra IQ (canberraiq.com.au).