The importance of teaching students about digital technology

Visual Programming. 3D Printing. Microbits. Robotics. Virtual Reality. Learning Management System. Video Conferencing. Artificial Intelligence. If you are unfamiliar with any of the above mentioned terms, then you’re not alone.

Technology is disrupting and transforming the education landscape, making a huge impact on how we live and on our current and future workforce. Technology is rapidly changing the way we communicate, share and process information, learn and work. It is predicted that more than five million Australian jobs will disappear in the next 15 years as a result of technology automation and globalisation. 

While technology will continue to reduce the number of workers performing routine and manual tasks, for many it means that those jobs will evolve and change allowing workers to collaborate more and work more creatively. Some jobs may disappear as they have done so in the past. However, there will be many more jobs created; many which do not exist today.

In the Foundation for Young Australians New Work Smarts report, they predicted that the jobs of the future will require people to demonstrate more advanced skills in problem solving, critical thinking, verbal communication and interpersonal skills. They will also require strong foundation skills in mathematics and science as well as strong technical skills in digital technology. This includes programming skills as well as skills in designing technology solutions to solve problems and meet customer needs.

It’s predicted that in the average working week, the time spent on tasks requiring advanced technology skills will increase by 75 percent from four hours today to at least seven hours in 2030. Even in the short term, it’s predicted that more than half of Australian workers will need to be able to use, configure or build digital systems in the next two to three years.

Research conducted by FYA predicts that the average 15-year-old today will potentially have 17 different jobs in five different careers across their lifetime. The challenge now as educators is preparing students for a future where the jobs our students will be doing will look very different to those of today or may not actually exist yet. 

The Australian Government recognises the importance of developing skills and knowledge in areas of science, mathematics and digital technologies as critically important to our current and future productivity.  As such, they have committed to allocating over $64 million to fund early learning and school STEM initiatives under the Inspiring All Australians in Digital Literacy and STEM measure. This includes two measures: Embracing the Digital Age (school initiatives - $51 million) and Inspiring STEM Literacy (early learning initiatives- $14 million).

In 2015, all education ministers agreed to the National STEM School Education Strategy for 2016-2018 which focuses on the foundation skills, developing mathematical, scientific and digital literacy, and promoting problem solving, critical analysis and creative thinking skills. The report on this strategy found that while literacy and numeracy skills will remain a primary focus, teachers will now also need to prepare students to ensure they are fluent in digital literacy. The study of science and technology will be fundamental in developing these essential skills required to succeed in a future workplace.    

NESA states, “The study of science and technology develops the building blocks of inquiry and students’ abilities to solve problems. Students are provided with opportunities to develop understanding based on evidence and reason. These skills enable students to participate responsibly in developing innovative ideas and solutions in response to questions and situations relevant to personal, social and environmental issues. The learning students experience enables them to contribute to the world as active global citizens both now and in the future.

Science and technology are pedagogically linked and through their practical application promote genuine learning opportunities for students. The application of Working Scientifically, and Design and Production skills enables students to develop a sense of accomplishment and enhance their skills in inquiry and manipulating tools and materials to produce solutions. These skills are important in preparing students to succeed in a rapidly developing technological world.

Students studying science and technology are encouraged to question and seek solutions to problems through collaboration, investigation, critical thinking and creative problem-solving. Students are provided with opportunities to apply thinking skills and develop an appreciation of the processes they can apply as they encounter problems, unfamiliar information and new ideas. These attributes are fundamental to the development of students who use evidence to make decisions and solve problems,” (NSW Education Standards Authority. Science and Technology Syllabus, Rationale, 2017).

The new Science and Technology syllabus now includes a new content strand called Digital Technologies. This strand provides students with the opportunity to develop these advanced technological skills required in the future workforce. They will have opportunity to investigate existing technologies to understand how they work and begin creating digital solutions to solve problems and meet needs. 

Knowledge and skills in this area will build upon the ICT capabilities and move students from being critical consumers of technology to creative producers of digital solutions. 

Another new change is the addition of thinking skills in the new syllabus. Development of these thinking skills are vital as they underpin effective learning in this area. They include computational thinking, design thinking, scientific thinking and systems thinking. Opportunities to apply these thinking skills are outlined in the syllabus and can be identified using the codes as detailed below.

NSW Education Standards Authority defines these thinking skills as:

Computational thinking – a process where a problem is analysed and solved so that a human, machine or computer can effectively implement the solution. It involves using strategies to organise data logically, break down problems into parts, interpret patterns and design and implement algorithms to solve problems.

Design thinking –  a process where a need or opportunity is identified and a design solution is developed. The consideration of economic, environmental and social impacts that result from designed solutions are core to design thinking. Design thinking methods can be used when trying to understand a problem, generate ideas and refine a design based on evaluation and testing.

Scientific thinking - purposeful thinking that has the objective to enhance knowledge. A scientific thinker raises questions and problems, observes and gathers data, draws conclusions based on evidence, tests conclusions, thinks with an open mind and communicates research findings appropriately.  

Systems thinking – an understanding of how related objects or components interact to influence how a system functions. Students are provided with opportunities to recognise the connectedness of, and interactions between phenomena, people, places and events in local and wider contexts and consider the impact of their decisions. Understanding the complexity of systems and the interdependence of components is important for scientific research and for the creation of solutions to technical, economic and social issues.”

During Term 4, the Learning Technology Team have been delivering professional development focusing on this new strand in the syllabus. This training has dispelled the myth that in order to teach digital technology you need a computer. The session has focused on understanding the key differences between ICT capabilities and digital technology content and skills, a brief review of the units of work that will soon be available to staff to support them in the implementation of this new syllabus and developing an understanding of the new terms associated with the digital technology strand such as algorithms, branching, digital systems, data representation, transmission of data. Most of the activities exploring these concepts have been hands-on and could be used in the classroom with students. 

One of the activities attendees participated in was a Lego building activity. In this activity, one person was the builder who constructed the Lego model, while the other was the instructor who had to interpret the visual instructions and transform it into verbal format. They were unable to point or help construct the model. This challenged people’s ability to categorise pieces according to colour, shape and size and allowed teachers to explore how algorithms are essentially just explicit step by step instructions. If the algorithm or instructions are incorrect, it will result in an error. 

In 2019, there will be further opportunities for teachers to further develop their knowledge and skills in this content area. If you have any questions regarding implementation of the new syllabus or specifically the digital technologies content, you can contact your school’s Education Officer (Primary Curriculum) or Education Officer (Learning Technology).

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