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Schools urged to get with the program

Date

Sylvia Pennington

Matt Barrie from Freelancer.com

Matt Barrie from Freelancer.com Photo: Tim Bauer

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

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.

26 comments so far

  • Hang on, Everyone wants to be Mark Zuckerberg who didn't make his money writing apps. He was successful because he was able to turn an idea into a reality. There was a bit more to this than just programming. The programming bit is taught in schools because it is the easy bit to teach. The whole spectrum of application development activities involving organisational skills and client interaction required to take ideas and turn them into reality is not taught. If you ask what made Mark Zuckerberg and Steve Jobs and Bill Gates before him successful, their programming skills are probably not to the fore.

    Commenter
    woz
    Location
    civic
    Date and time
    November 20, 2012, 12:02PM
    • I finished high school about 3 years ago, having chosen technology subjects, and I can say that they were definitely not the reason I chose to get into the IT sector. My teachers were from the woodwork department, didn't understand basic principles of IT, coding, or have any passion for the field. I worked from a 10 year old textbook, that taught how important sound proof boxes were for printers for OH&S reasons, among other ridiculously outdated notions. It's almost laughable how much resources were given towards IT subjects, and this was at a selective school, who are meant to have more resources. I don't want to see how it is in a non-selective school in that case.

      Commenter
      Andrew
      Date and time
      November 20, 2012, 12:10PM
      • Since ICT needs overhaul, what about course teaching how to use a soldering iron for secondary student?

        I wonder where ICT would be heading without one?

        Commenter
        Gerson
        Location
        Sydney
        Date and time
        November 20, 2012, 9:38PM
    • Does Matt Barrie actually wonder why people aren't bothering to enrol in ICT education? Whats the point when people like Mr Barrie make websites that essentially enable companies to employ third world labour at significantly reduced rates over local talent.

      You would not be able to hire a programmer in Australia at the award wage and even come close to competing with what you can hire a programmer for in India, China, Vietnam.

      So, Mr Barrie, if you're wondering what the problem is take a good long look in the mirror.

      Commenter
      Rob
      Location
      Perth
      Date and time
      November 20, 2012, 12:46PM
      • A good starting point to improve ICT, and indeed knowledge and skills across the school's wider curriculum/s is to adequately resource and train teachers - something that is sadly lacking. Victoria is a good example, where teachers have to pay for their own laptops - there wouldn't be many organisations that don't provide the necessary tools for their staff to do their jobs.

        Commenter
        Harry
        Location
        Melbourne
        Date and time
        November 20, 2012, 1:32PM
        • Let them bust a hump learning sometimes quiet complex tasks to then afford a lovely career working for $15US per hour on projects on Freelancer.com

          There is a reason why numbers of tech graduates have falled so dramatically. Its very difficult to be globablly competitive as a wage slave.(Even though Australian kids can be afforded a stronger education than indian, chinese etc...there will always be enough kids better because their is a labour pool of billions).

          ICT should be a hobby as a partnership to another pursuit. If you have some entreprenuerial spirit, look to the developing world to exploit their cheap labour to help you build your own dream.

          Business grads are probably more likely to build successful ICT careers in Australia these days.

          Commenter
          Barney
          Location
          Sydney
          Date and time
          November 20, 2012, 1:40PM
          • Surely Barrie is joking!
            Why should Australian schools invest in teaching programming when anything above junior grade gets outsourced to India by the big integrators and websites like his "hawk professional jobs from architecture to copywriting to the lowest bidders around the world"?
            Big Australian companies such as Telstra mandate 70% of the work is done off-shore, leaving the rest for mid-level management & executives. Most of the big I.T. spenders such as the big four banks are the same.

            They school system would be better of offering business and project management skills as they translate better across multiple industries and are less likely to be effected by offshoring.

            Commenter
            IT Expat
            Location
            SE Asia
            Date and time
            November 20, 2012, 1:45PM
            • Schools seem to be teaching 'how to use a user interface' not 'technology' - this glaringly obvious from the test questions usually of the form 'if I want to do X which icon do I use?'

              You don't learn maths by trying every type of maths problem. You learn the fundamentals - the 'technology' - and apply them.

              On an iPad there are about 20 different user interface objects - button, scrollers, lists etc. Once you learn how to use those, that is all you need for all applications - that is the 'technology'. The user interface is just how some programmer put them together.

              Commenter
              thoughtspace
              Date and time
              November 20, 2012, 1:57PM
              • What a joke! Matt Barrie has being one of the reasons the ICT/IT industry is dying. His comments are like an OIL company saying we need more alternative energy. He basic collaboration portal business model has allow small to large business off-shore skills to lower paid workers and in turn all future work for local talent is dying. I am not surprise kids are staying away from ICT/IT. its not worth it to spend loads of money and spend long hours to be told that your entry salary can not match the wage of an Indian, Chinese, thai, indonesian, Filipino IT worker. everything in IT its being off-shore or run by 457s. thanks for destroying IT for young and old. 

                Commenter
                Will
                Location
                Brisbane
                Date and time
                November 20, 2012, 2:07PM
                • Will, like many of the peanut gallery here you clearly have no clue about how tight the market here is in Australia for software developers. nor how much they get paid. We're hiring by the metric ton, and paying salaries more than what you'd pay in the US or UK by a long margin. Universally, the entire IT industry in Australia cannot find enough staff. It's a major problem. To say "I am not surprise kids are staying away from ICT/IT. its not worth it to spend loads of money and spend long hours to be told that your entry salary can not match the wage of an Indian, Chinese, thai, indonesian, Filipino IT worker. everything in IT its being off-shore or run by 457s." is complete and utter rubbish.

                  Commenter
                  Matt Barrie, Freelancer.com
                  Date and time
                  November 20, 2012, 8:11PM

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