IT Pro

Schools urged to get with the program

His website put the world in a spin by allowing companies to hawk professional jobs from architecture to copywriting to the lowest bidders around the world.

Now entrepreneur Matt Barrie thinks it's high time the Australian secondary school technology curriculum receives a similar seismic shake-up.

Matt Barrie from
Matt Barrie from Photo: Tim Bauer

The dwindling number of students enrolling in tertiary information and communications technology (ICT) courses has caused consternation within Australia's high-tech sector and university community.

Recent figures released by the Australian Computer Society showed enrolments had halved in the past decade, entry standards had fallen and one in two students were dropping out before graduation.

While universities and the sector prepare to redouble their efforts to lure the young to a technology career path, Barrie says they're on a hiding to nothing until secondary schools overhaul the way ICT is taught.

He is calling for state and federal funding to create a semester-long ICT module which can be delivered online, administered centrally and assessed via an automated marking system.


The course would teach high schoolers some programming fundamentals, encourage them to write apps and aim to fire their enthusiasm to enter the industry that made Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg a billionaire at 23.

It's a model which the Australian National Computer Science School has used to deliver the NCSS Challenge, its annual high school computer programming competition, for the past seven years.

The five-week competition, which runs under the auspices of the University of Sydney, guides students through a series of programming activities and has seen participant numbers swell from 150 in 2005 to 4200 this year.

Barrie said a longer program could be created by the school for as little as $1 million and used to augment existing high school ICT curricula, which he described as old fashioned, irrelevant and bland.

A draft of the new National Curriculum for Digital Technologies is due for release in February but Barrie said an online course could be developed before the new curriculum is launched and rolled out, without having to retrain teachers.

The introduction of up-to-date course material with real world applications would capture the imagination of students not attracted to the ICT discipline as it is now taught, he said.

“The kids would like to go out there and learn but the curriculum is so stagnant. It's all bureaucracy and the teachers don't want to look like dummies … I don't think the problem is teaching the students, it's teaching the teachers.”

Online learning was no longer the poor cousin of classroom-based lessons and could give students access to better quality support, albeit remotely, than they received in the classroom, Barrie added.

“The tools and online streaming are so good that the experience is superior to sitting in a class.”

A computer science and electrical engineering graduate and part-time lecturer at the University of Sydney, Barrie has earned a reputation for calling a spade a bloody shovel. Earlier this year he spoke out against the NSW government's draft 10-year plan for nurturing a digital economy in the state, condemning its goals as 'fluffy' and irrelevant.

Former executive dean of science and technology at QUT Simon Kaplan agreed that secondary ICT courses needed a major overhaul.

“One of the key problems with the school ICT curriculum is that it is taught badly by people who don't really understand what ICT is about so they employ a kind of shallow, rote teaching that doesn't take them outside their limited comfort zone,” Kaplan said.

But he questioned whether online courses would engage the unmotivated majority or appeal primarily to geeky types whose course was already set on the high-tech route.

“If our goal is to take students with an existing predisposition towards computer science and make sure they are taught extremely well and remain engaged with computing then it could work very well indeed,” Kaplan said.

Associate professor at the University of Sydney and a director of NCSS James Curran said schools had historically invested in infrastructure and equipment ahead of teacher training and up-to-date materials.

Hooking up to high-speed broadband or handing out a batch of late model iPads did not aid students' understanding of computing concepts or pique their interest to learn more about the underlying technologies, Curran said.