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Debate and support for new digital strand

Teachers need support if they’re to integrate the new digital technology strand into their teaching.

News broke in the spring that digital technology will become a strand in the New Zealand Curriculum and Te Marautanga o Aotearoa in its own right from 2018 requiring all primary and intermediate teachers to incorporate its teaching. But teachers needn’t be nervous, says NZEI Te Riu Roa’s representative on a government review team Jo Fothergill.

The new strand emerged from the Government’s Science and Society Strategic Plan –  A Nation of Curious Minds: Te Whenua Hihiri i te Mahara, which was launched to review the positioning and content of digital technologies.

That review reported back to the Minister of Education Hekia Parata who subsequently announced the new curriculum strand. It will be the first change to the NZ Curriculum since 2007. The Curious Minds multi-disciplinary review team involved educators, students, academics and members of the tech industry.  It assessed how digital technologies are being taught now and what more needs to be done.

How the new strand will look isn’t straightforward, says Fothergill, an eLearning lead teacher at Raumati Beach School in Kapiti. What constitutes digital education is very wide indeed and ranges from the conceptual to hands on activities.

There were many competing opinions within the review team on how the strand will look and there was “furious debate” around what “digital technology” even meant.

What’s more, not everyone is happy that digital technologies are not to be made into their own learning area. However Parata hasn’t taken this step, believing it can be incorporated into existing learning areas.

The review team is continuing to meet and is due to recommend suitable wording for the strand by the end of 2017.

Other stakeholders are also being invited to give their opinion on how to design new curriculum content, and develop achievement objectives.

One of the issues with the new strand will be that some teachers don’t even necessarily understand what is meant by “digital technology” thinking it’s simply the use of devices.

Most teachers doing it anyway

Whatever form the new strand takes, teachers shouldn’t be fearful of it, says Fothergill, because they are already doing much of what will be required of them.

“The lessons for five, six  and seven year olds [for example] is stuff they are already learning in the classroom, usually as part of the maths curriculum.”

Massey University’s Dr Lisa Emerson believes that digital learning should sit within overall literacy.

Far more important than learning to use devices, Emerson says, is how the learners access and engage with technology, the importance of it in our everyday lives, the social implications of their technology use, and how they are empowered to be creators of knowledge is what’s important, she says.

Fothergill concurs about digital education starting offline. In her school, teachers begin digital literacy with simple activities such as sorting shapes.

“If I were doing a lesson with five year olds [relating to the strand], I would be sorting, and making patterns.”

Another relevant activity that could fit into the curriculum strand might involve weighing objects to determine which is lighter and heavier.

“If I wanted to do something a bit more techie, I might look at connecting simple circuits to make things turn on,” she says.

When the lessons do move online, Fothergill adds, teachers can learn along with their classes by using resources from organisations such as Computer Science Unplugged (CSUnplugged.org), a New Zealand initiative from the University of Canterbury. It offers engaging games and puzzles, and old school technologies such as string and crayons to teach the basic concepts of computer science.

Full curriculum

Some teachers may be resistant to extending an already full curriculum, says Emerson. If, however, they view digital literacy as part of overall literacy it can be tied into lessons on other subjects that interest individual teachers.

Even “coding” shouldn’t be daunting to teachers, says Fothergill. It can be as straightforward as assembling blocks of pre-written code together to see what they make. The blocks of code are simply digital versions of blocks of Lego that can be put together to produce a finished product.

The new content is expected to cover themes such as computers, programming, algorithms, data representation, digital applications, digital devices and infrastructure.  On the heels of the new strand, funding has been released for improving digital capability in low decile primary schools and kura through the ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment ‘s Unlocking Curious Minds Contestable Funding programme. This has led to initiatives such as Waikato University’s Roboshops, which will teach children aged between 7 and 12 years the basics of coding and how it’s applied to control robots.

Materials and PLD needed

More will be needed than these one-off projects to support classroom teachers across all deciles and the Ministry of Education will have a lot of responsibilities to ensure that there are classroom materials ready to go for schools, says Fothergill.

Also needed will be professional learning and development opportunities enabling teachers to get up to speed – especially those who do not currently feel adequately prepared for the digital revolution.  In 2016, digital education is still often championed by teachers such as Fothergill who have a natural leaning to the subject. Not all schools have such expertise on their staffs.

Industry demands

Industry representatives on the review team are keen to see New Zealand learners prepared for a rapidly changing digital world. Given that digital technologies are revolutionising the world children are growing up in,  they would like to see more funding for digital education in schools.

The reality, says Microsoft’s education sector manager Evan Blackman is that children need to be educated for digital economy jobs that don’t even exist yet.

Blackman would like to see Parata’s announcement fleshed out and address the depth of education required for building the digital fluency that will be required for career pathways in decades to come.

“An overall change of focus for the education system is needed if we really are to inspire a nation of Curious Minds, as the Government programme launched in 2014 envisions.”

Resources

  • Teachers might find the former Digital Technologies Guidelines at http://dtg.tki.org.nz/ The new strand will build on this work.
  • Good sources of information for teachers looking to incorporate digital literacy in their classrooms include Code.org and Scratch, which can be found at Scratch.mit.edu.

Two apps:

CSUnplugged.org: Home-grown Kiwi learning activities often plug very neatly into the New Zealand education system. That’s certainly the case with CSUnplugged, which provides teachers with off-line activities designed for children to explore interesting ideas in computer science without using a computer. An example of a CSUnplugged lesson is printable flip cards, which are used to teach the very basics of binary digits – the building block of computer code. The lesson also compares these binary digits to lightbulbs being on or off and explains how it can be compared to the guessing game in which one person thinks of a number and someone else tries to guess it. The site also has a section for teachers under the Community tab.

Code.org: The idea behind Code.org is that anyone can learn basic coding. It needn’t be scary or a dark art. Code.org’s lessons can be completed on tablets, smartphones, PCs, Macs or even on the board without computers at all. One of the key messages of Code.org is that computational thinking isn’t just about computers. The advantage for teachers is that lesson plans are provided, reducing the time needed for preparation. As well as the lesson plans and other materials, Code.org provides educational and inspirational videos covering subjects such as computer science principles and how the Internet works. Each year Code.org hosts The Hour of Code event, which is a one-hour computer science activity suitable for beginners. Millions of children have taken part in the annual Hour of Code event run in November each year.