Ministry man says NZCS ‘bolt’ delaying IT education plan

E-learning advisor says some teachers are backing off ICT education workshops

Last month, the Ministry of Education was poised to announce to teachers the beginnings of a new ICT teaching framework for senior students when the NZCS issued its damning report on NCEA assessment standards.

Some teachers are now backing away from workshops on the new ICT teaching and assessment framework, for Years 11 to 13, because of the “negative image” that has been created regarding the state of ICT learning, says Howard Baldwin, the ministry’s senior adviser on e-learning.

The report, which severely criticised the 18 NCEA achievement standards for computer science, was put together by the NZ Computer Society, which is concerned ICT is being inadequately taught in high schools (Computerworld, June 2).

Professional development workshops for teachers — prepared under the Digital Technology Guidelines initiative — had already been set up and teachers had agreed to attend.

“I was just about to tell teachers that their concerns [over ICT education] were being addressed when the NZCS report came like a bolt out of the blue,” says Baldwin.

However, the Digital Technology Guidelines (DTG) initiative continues and the ministry has involved the NZCS in its planning. The industry has already been involved in the development of the DTG in the form of the now disbanded HiGrowth Trust, which had worked with a group of teachers from 12 schools.

These teachers represent a range of opinions, says Baldwin. They include those who see themselves providing successful computer courses within the parameters of NCEA assessment standards condemned by the NZCS. There are also teachers who, like the Computer Society, see computer science as being more akin to disciplines like mathematics than to other technologies, such as woodwork and engineering.

After three years preparing a business case and a year’s practical work, the DTG initiative has a series of subject areas sketched out. Currently, they come under general headings, such as digital media, business technology and programming, for example. But more specific courses, within these subject areas, are now being trialled.

Some of the courses were developed under the Beacon Practice initiative, which was part of the government’s Growth and Innovation Framework (GIF). Beacon provided support to teachers who had demonstrated “best practice” in technology education.

However, the NZCS report said the DTG initiative was too shallow. “To have a remote chance of success, the Guidelines must start at Year 1,” said the report.

But, Baldwin says, before Year 11, the syllabus provides “a range of programmes, including some pretty exciting things”. However, these initiatives are oriented towards the use of technology in other subject areas. With the emergence of $500 computers, such as Asus’ Eee PC, computing for students will become ever more intertwined with the daily business of learning, says Baldwin.

The time to start concentrating on specific technology skills is Years 11-13, when students express an interest in maybe specialising in ICT, he adds.

Some teachers see the principles of computer science arising naturally from courses within such a general framework, while others share the view of the Computer Society that some separate “higher-order thinking” is required. “We have resolved to work together to try and resolve these issues. But we have also made [the NZCS] aware of the complex processes that will be required [to develop computer-science material].”

The difficulty with ICT is that it is “made up of disparate bits that are changing all the time”. Ten years ago, a student demonstrating he or she could access the internet and search for information might have qualified as a measurable “achievement”. Now this is commonplace, says Baldwin.

Given this, the ministry is trying to develop a framework that allows room for flexibility, he says.

But, why wasn’t this done five or 10 years ago? One reason was schools were immersed in the turmoil of implementing the NCEA, says Baldwin. “It didn’t seem appropriate to add another complex issue for teachers to handle at that stage.”

However, he says, it’s unfair to blame the current shortage of ICT entrants entirely on a lack of coherent schools material. Careers advisers, perhaps, have some wrong ideas about the profession. Also students and parents have memories of the dotcom crash that may mean they are wary of the industry.

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