Govt failing ICT teachers says tech educator

Head of ICT at Hukarere Girls' College says barriers in the curriculum makes it difficult to teach employable skills

The Ministry of Education is failing ICT teachers, and by doing so the New Zealand technology industry, says one Hawkes Bay educator.

Michael Peterson is head of department for ICT and technologies at Hukarere Girls’ College near Napier. He says barriers in the ministry’s curriculum make it difficult to teach employable IT skills, and discourage students from taking it up as a career.

“They’re failing ICT teachers, the students, and they’re failing the industry,” says Peterson.

But associate professor of computer science and software engineering at the University of Canterbury Tim Bell, who advises the ministry on its IT programme, disagrees, although he does admit that the professional development required to teach new standards has been “haphazard.” This is because the roll out was affected by the earthquakes in Christchurch last year.

“There were a lot of professional development courses, but the roll out was bumpy. It was made worse when the quakes struck,” says Bell.

“Many of the members of the New Zealand Association of Science Educators (NZASE) who we partnered with for the courses were in Christchurch, and understandably they went off the radar for while after February.”

Bell says the ministry has not done enough to support teachers in adopting the new standards. He recommends it does more to cover the associated costs involved, such as travel and accommodation, which are currently not paid for by schools.

“The standards themselves are excellent, and if the ministry could help the teachers out it would be by getting more of them onboard with it and giving them the professional development they require.”

NZQA focuses on “static” IT skills

Peterson says the current ministry-provided ICT curriculum for senior students (Years 11, 12, and 13) focuses on outdated and “static” IT skills, instead of general “IT thinking” like programming theory, strategy, and logic; which would prepare students for higher education in ICT and careers in the sector.

Because of NZQA guidelines regarding how credits can be earned, Peterson says there is very little room to change the teaching plan for seniors.

But Bell says the introduction of new standards for ICT will help alleviate some of the pain felt by ICT teachers like Peterson.

The new standards introduce a range of topics to the ICT subject at a secondary level, including addressing some of the complaints made by Peterson. There is a new focus on the technical side of computing; including programming, computer science, electronics, digital media and infrastructure.

Bell says the first of these standards were published last year for Level 1 NCEA, and include achievement standards instead of the lesser unit standards. Level 2 has been rolled out this year, and Level 3 will be available in 2013.

Focus on Year 9 and 10

In the meantime, Peterson says ICT teachers like him are having to take matters into their own hands and are teaching those skills to secondary school juniors.

“They [the ministry] have little control over us in Years 9 and 10. It’s at Year 11 that we need to conform to NZQA standards,” says Peterson.

“Some of my colleagues in teaching ICT aren’t too sure about what they should be doing. Quite a few people like me have a damn good idea what we should be doing, and we’re doing it – regardless of what the ministry thinks.”

In Peterson’s class, he teaches his Year 9 students about robotics, general programming theory, and the Alice and Scratch graphical programming languages.

Five students from Hukarere Girls’ College came third in the 2008 Robocup Junior robotics competition with their haka-performing entry.

Peterson says what little ministry guidance ICT teachers are given for Years 9 and 10, is better suited “for children of two decades ago”.

“The year nines are coming into school much more advanced than they were a few years ago, so much so that a lot of my juniors are capable of doing year 12 work, which has become very static... The ministry underestimates these kids. We’re teaching them how to do Powerpoint documents, which is good but doesn’t really impress an employer when it’s put on a CV,” says Peterson.

“In my class of 25 students, I’m running eight to ten different programmes at different levels, and it changes depending on the student,” says Peterson.

“That would be very hard in any other subject, but IT is perfect for it. It lends itself to this kind of teaching and the children are generally thrilled about what we do.”

Peterson says what frustrates him the most is what he perceives as a lack of interest from the ministry in ICT as a subject.

“We secondary school teachers can be enthusiastic about IT, and show our students what’s possible in an IT career, but it’s hard when it seems the ministry doesn’t give a damn,” says Peterson.

Peterson agrees with recent comments made by Orion Health CEO Ian McCrae in Computerworld, that ICT should be taught as the fourth science. He says most senior students take ICT as an easy way to earn unit standards to pass other subjects. It is not until ICT is given the same weighting as the other sciences that we will see more students take IT as a career option, says Peterson.

When asked if he or his school could face repercussions for his comments, Peterson replied simply, “It’s something that’s got to be said.”

Computerworld has approached Education Minister, Hekia Parata, and the Ministry of Education for comment. The minister has declined to comment, referring our questions to the ministry. The ministry has failed to respond so far.

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