NSW IT Education – needs to be fixed badly

(This is my own personal opinion and does not reflect that of Aykira)

It appears we have somewhat of ‘want’ and ‘got’ gap between what the Australian market wants in terms of IT skills and what the state educational system is delivering. We are unable to meet the demand and this is a crying shame.

The Current Situation…

If my eldest son’s personal experience is anything to go by its no wonder we have very few people choosing IT subjects, it appears there has been an almost deliberate attempt to provide the minimal level of investment in what I consider a critical subject area going forwards. Why do I consider it critical? Consider this:

  • Name one business sector not utilising or dependent upon computers in one shape or form;
  • Name one product or service you can buy which does not depend on computers in one shape or form.
  • Have a look around the room or place you are in now; I beat the majority of what is around has either being designed on, built by, run by or monitored by a computer.

Whether you like it or not computers are everywhere, and they are going to become even more so. Ever heard of the Internet of Things?  This is where computers get embedded into everyday objects to either track, monitor or control them. Think of a smart fridge that track what needs replenishing for you. Think of computer controlled lights and heating, so minimising ongoing operational costs. Think of wrist based health monitors that will know if something is wrong before you do. Think agriculture monitors in fields that let farmers know the exact state of their crops in real time. etc etc. All of what I have listed exists NOW.

Therefore how can we justify to our children the fact that we have a curriculum that ‘downplays’ the significance of computers in our modern lives – do we want to create a generation of people who know nothing of the technology they will dependent upon? Given the almost pervasive nature of technology and computers into everyday aspects of life, we should be educating all children to have a good core knowledge of computers – all jobs worth having have computing skills as a requirement.

Now, the school my son attends has a computing lab – but it contains:

  • Computers so underpowered that they are unable to run the programs required to complete assignments;
  • Computers with old and out of date software running on them;
  • Computers with the smallest lowest possible resolution monitors – so making it even harder to use them;
  • A computer network so antiqued that it cannot in any way deal with the demands placed upon it.

Now I suspect that this school’s computing lab is not atypical – given all the equipment supplied is via a NSW wide contract of delivery…  Which in itself I don’t have a problem with, buying in bulk is usually a good idea, but in this case someone somewhere has lost sight of the following:

There is no point saving money and providing computing resources that are not fit for purpose.

You might as well have not bothered, really; supplying computers so unpowered is truly a double edged sword, for the following reasons:

  • The computer quickly becomes unable to do anything worthwhile,
  • Said computer needs to be replaced, often with an equivalent unpowered computer,
  • The cycle repeats…

The only group benefiting out of this cycle of fast equipment obsolescence is the supplier, it’s provides no benefit to the school. In fact it’s a massive negative to those wanting to learn about computers as it instantly puts them off – who wants to use computers that even your grandda won’t be caught using…

Supply and Demand, the proof

There is a demand in this market for local IT skills, you don’t just have to take my word for it – I quote Scott Farquhar of Atlassian (article in SMH):

Mr Farquhar lastly spoke about the lack of computing skills taught in the Australian education system. He pointed out enrolments in tertiary computer science were falling, despite demand for technologically literate workers skyrocketing.

This lack of university interest probably starts at the school level, where there are no uniform national requirement to teach computer and software skills,” said Mr Farquhar, although he praised the new national Digital Technologies Curriculum currently under review as part of the national curriculum review.

That article was written in October 2014 – so is very current.

I concur with Scott’s assessment, interest in IT as a profession starts at school. In order to foster that interest and make it grow you need 3 components to me:

  • Computing resources in a school that actually makes computing ‘fun’;
  • A peer group who are also interested in computers;
  • Parents who are supportive.

Note how only the first component is required from the school, the rest will largely take care of themselves if the school environment is supportive of IT skills development.

Also there has been a certain amount of complaining about the usage of Visas to fill roles that should have gone to locals; the problem here is that I reckon there just aren’t the locals in sufficient numbers to fulfill those roles at the skill levels required.

As I said there is no problem at all with the Demand side of the equation, the cock up is with the Supply side from our education system.

Will they want to learn IT?

Yes, and I have proof that they will. As follows:

  1. My eldest son. I have provided him with a decent computer (in no way top of range), its powerful enough to see him through for a good few years to come and wasn’t in anyway expensive (in fact I bet I put it together for less than what the computers at the schools was bought for). With minimal guidance from me (mostly in the form of showing him what I do) he has taken to computing like a duck to water, he does his own research and has a peer group who is also interested in computers.
  2. My Robot. I’m building a robot at the moment, mostly for my own entertainment, but also to show my boys what can be done if you put your mind to it. A few weeks back two boys from my eldest’s school came round on their bikes – net result a solid hour going over the robot asking all sorts of questions on how it worked and the technology involved.
  3. Schools that have got it right. for instance look at North Sydney Boys school where they have computing results 16 points ahead of the state average. There are similar results for CherryBrook Technology High School. I know these are selective schools, but the point is if the teaching is done right, the results will flow.

See, it’s not ‘hard’ to have children interested in computers and technology and for them to run with it – it just needs the right environment.

What can be done?

There are few simple things that can be done now to turn this ship around:

  1. Approve/Endorse the Digital Technologies Curriculum and bring it into force pronto;
  2. Cancel the IT equipment supply contracts forthwith – cite that the equipment supplied is demonstrably not fit for purpose.
  3. Give schools the power to purchase their own IT equipment directly – provide a set of guidelines as to what the core base features should be (i.e. preferred Operating System) and leave it at that. The current ‘excuse’ for centralised control on IT administration needs to be abolished – this flies in the face of innovation and anyway is a commodity service that is already available in the free market (i.e. cloud based remote support, many businesses use such services at very competitive rates). This will also act as a boost to local businesses and provide a mechanism for the businesses to help support their local schools. yes, you can have centralised networking, cloud services and security monitoring, but the rest of it needs to be opened up comprehensively.
  4. Make the learning of basic computer skills a mandatory component of the first 2 years of high school – nobody should leave school not knowing how to effectively use a computer as part of a job.

These are not ‘hard’ to do, rather quite straight forward. The end goal should be that no student should leave the state education system unaware of how to use computers and have had sufficient positive exposure to work out for themselves if they want to pursue a career in computing.