Speech: The Importance of Tech Education in Our Schools

October 24, 2014

Good morning. It is a pleasure to be here.

Thank you to both Jason Yetton and Phil Coffey for your introduction and for inviting me here to speak this morning.


At the risk of sounding cynical, it is easy when reflecting on the changes to Australia’s education policy over the last decade to be reminded of  Prince Tancredi's observation in The Leopard, Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s great novel on 19th Century Sicilian life: ‘if we want things to stay the same, everything must change’.

Too frequently education policy makers have sought to reinvent curricula by adding more and more courses and giving existing courses increasingly exotic names. But what has this actually achieved? A level of confusion, certainly. For instance, what does ‘digital technologies’ actually mean and what is the difference between design and digital technologies when it comes to the Australian curriculum?

As Phil Callil recently pointed out in his review of the technologies curriculum, the term digital technologies is not well known in the education systems of Canada, Finland, Singapore or the UK - not to mention the IT industry itself.

A second, and perhaps more important question to ask is, have educational outcomes actually improved? If we turn to international performance tables such as PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) and TIMMS (Trends in International Mathematics and Science) it is clear that we need to improve educational outcomes across both the ICT and broader STEM disciplines.

To remain competitive in an increasingly interconnected world we need to ensure that the curriculum equips students for the jobs of tomorrow. We need to consider where future employment demand will come from and the skills school leavers will need to compete in a world that has been transformed by the Internet - where nearly every industry is now trade exposed.

This increased competition presents both greater challenges and greater opportunities. Many new jobs will be created, many will be destroyed. The key for us as a nation, and for each of us as individuals and especially as parents, is to ensure that here in Australia we are, in net terms, creating new jobs and new businesses and new opportunities.

If we do not, if we do not become more competitive, then we cannot remain the high wage economy we are with a generous social welfare safety net.

The key to all of this, of course, is that our education curriculum must equip students with the skills to take advantage of these opportunities. This means that we need to move beyond teaching students how to consume technology and instead focus on the creation of technology.

 With the current rate of technology adoption in Australia, very few primary school aged children, even at five or six, have not learnt the basics of how to use their parents’ tablet or smartphone. So instead of teaching students how to be passive consumers of technology or how to use Microsoft Word or other proprietary software, our educators should be teaching students how to create, how to code.

As Barack Obama recently observed to young students in America: ‘Don’t just download the latest app, help design it. Don’t just play on your phone, program it’.

The Australian curriculum review

To this end, the first year of the Abbott Government has been a significant one for Australia’s education policy. Christopher Pyne is working to make the curriculum, particularly in the primary years, simpler and less crowded. Last week he released the Government’s review of the Australian curriculum that in many ways is all about getting back to basics - a curriculum that is less cluttered and more balanced with a greater emphasis on literacy and numeracy.

While the review has been met with broad support, specialists in the technology sector have raised very real concerns that ICT has been overlooked. The Australian Computer Society, for example, has warned that any delay to the teaching of coding would put students at a significant disadvantage from their peers in the UK, while others have compared the importance of coding to that of literacy and numeracy.

Now let me clarify a very important point: while I am certainly not suggesting that the authors of the curriculum review, Dr Kevin Donnelly and Professor Ken Wiltshire would agree with many that machine language and logic should be, for primary school students, an essential enabling skill like literacy and numeracy, neither have those authors suggested that important IT skills such as coding could not be incorporated into other areas of the ‘back to basics’ primary school curriculum.

Teaching students how to code - to use computers to create rather than just consume - from Foundation through to Year 8 could be appropriately incorporated into the mathematics syllabus, for example. A leader in this area is the Australian Mathematics Trust based in Canberra. I commend you to the work they are doing in informatics, a mathematics discipline, where students learn the basic algorithms, data structures and computational techniques that underlie information and communication, and demonstrate their learning through computer programming tasks.

It is also important to distinguish the recommendations of Phil Callil - the subject matter specialist engaged to review the technologies curriculum - from the review’s broader recommendations. Callil determined that key ICT skills taught as part of the digital technologies syllabus, such as coding and computational thinking, should be taught from Foundation to Year 10. I agree with him and agree that machine languages and logic are and certainly will be in the future almost as important as basic literacy and numeracy.

Regardless as to whether the ICT or digital technologies syllabus - as it is currently known - remains as a standalone subject or is incorporated into another syllabus such as maths, we need to ensure that:

  • We are equipping students with the skills for employment in an increasingly competitive globalised economy
  • We are improving the pathways for students to study IT from Foundation through to secondary school and onto university
  • There is an increase in the percentage of school-aged girls participating in ICT and women employed in the ICT sector
  • Teachers are supported to undertake professional learning in key areas of IT competency.

The current situation - declining participation in ICT

Australia’s Chief Scientist, Professor Ian Chubb made the point in his recent paper, Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics: Australia’s Future, that about half of all US economic growth in the last 50 years came from scientific and technological advances.[9]

But alarmingly in Australia, when it comes to ICT and STEM - the disciplines that will equip Australians with the skills to replicate the American experience - participation in the latter school years and at university continues to decline.

This is despite significant growth in employer demand, particularly from outside the traditional ICT sector, for graduates with training in computer science and related disciplines such as data and information management.

Consider for a moment the example of the marketing industry, which is becoming increasingly reliant on the use of data to better target products and campaigns and to deliver genuine insights to customers. The leading marketing firms are utilising the skills of data specialists to set themselves apart - to extract and interpret meaningful trends from vast and complex volumes of data.

Of course, all of this is being underpinned by the increasing ubiquity of the Internet - by the growth in mobile devices and other Internet-enabled technologies such as sensor networks, but it nonetheless highlights the growing demand for computer science graduates and data specialists, particularly in industries outside the ICT sector.

Of Australia’s 600,000 ICT workers, more than half now work outside the traditional ICT sector, while both the McKinsey Global Institute and Gartner predict that demand for data specialists will continue to grow strongly. Gartner estimates that the demand for data specialists will reach more than 4 million jobs globally by 2015, with only a third of these positions likely to be filled.

This has created a troubling paradox. We now have a significant gap between the technology-driven economy we have created and the skills that are not only required to meet the current demand but  also to drive future growth.

The OECD has observed that the number of students enrolled in a mathematics major in Australian universities fell by 15 per cent between 2001 and 2007,[3] while the Trends in Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) found that Australia’s performance in mathematics and science has stagnated over nearly two decades.[4]

Commencements in tertiary ICT courses have also fallen sharply, with a 53 per cent decline between 2001 and 2011, while completions declined by 58 per cent over the same period.[5]

Compare this with China where 41 per cent of all degrees awarded by Chinese institutions in 2011 were in a STEM subject.This is between two and three times the proportion of STEM degrees awarded each year in countries such as Australia, the UK and the US.[6]

These low numbers of STEM and ICT skilled students and graduates are frustrating industry who are concerned about the lack of sufficiently skilled and qualified graduates able to start work in ICT-related jobs.

Recently I spoke with Matt Barrie, Freelancer.com’s charismatic CEO, who lamented the quantity and quality of Australia’s ICT graduates. He told me that Freelancer was one of many Australian companies that are desperate for Australian coders, engineers and computer scientists but regrettably often have to employ workers from overseas as Australia’s tertiary sector is not producing nearly enough graduates with the skills that enable them to start work.

What needs to be done to improve participation?

To turn this trend around, we need to improve the pathways for students to study IT from Foundation through to Year 12  and onto university. IT, particularly coding and computational thinking, must be given a more prominent position in the curriculum. As I have commented, this could be achieved through the maths syllabus or as a stand alone subject, but regardless it is important that we move beyond outdated discussions that focus on tech literacy and instead expose primary school-aged children to tech creation through coding.

As a nation, we could probably do with fewer lawyers. But we absolutely need more system engineers. We need more software developers. And we need more people that not only have advanced  skills in the use of proprietary software such as Microsoft Excel, but also understand how computers work.

Greater engagement with industry, such as through public-private partnerships is another way that we can increase the number and quality of IT graduates.

The Government’s recent announcement of trials based on the US P-TECH model is a good step in this direction. P-TECH is an education pathways partnership between IBM and the New York Education Department where students graduate with an associate degree, along with the skills and knowledge they need to continue their studies or transition directly into jobs in the IT industry. Participating schools also pair students with corporate mentors who help guide curricula and provide real-world insight into industry trends. Last week the Prime Minister committed $500,000 to a P-TECH-style program in Geelong. Public-private educational partnerships like this are providing students with a recognised qualification, while helping to prepare them for a career in IT.

We also need to monitor closely outcomes in the UK where last month the ICT curriculum was replaced with a new computing curriculum. Unsurprisingly, students as young as five and six are now receiving coding lessons.

Back in January, Michael Gove, former UK Secretary of State for Education, explained the changes by observing that:

"ICT used to focus purely on computer literacy – teaching pupils, over and over again, how to word-process, how to work a spreadsheet, how to use programs already creaking into obsolescence; about as much use as teaching children to send a telex or travel in a zeppelin.Our new curriculum teaches children computer science, information technology and digital literacy: teaching them how to code, and how to create their own programs; not just how to work a computer, but how a computer works and how to make it work for you".[19]

I am pleased that as part of the Government’s Competitiveness Agenda, the Coalition will invest $3.5 million through a ‘coding across the curriculum programme’ to provide greater exposure to computer coding across different year levels in Australian schools.

Rethinking our approach to IT learning is key to addressing the skills shortfall. Measures such as  merging scientific and creative thinking at primary school, or coding at primary school, lays important ground for producing technology literate high school graduates - graduates trained to not simply use technology, but to create, build and develop new technologies.

Women in ICT

The second change we have to make is to dramatically alter the composition of those participating in STEM subjects and industries. In particular, we have to increase the number of girls and women participating in ICT and STEM.

Although women fill close to half of all jobs in Australia, they hold less than 25% of STEM and ICT-related jobs.

When I met with Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook's Chief Operating Officer, in February she offered me a telling anecdote about the participation of girls in STEM related subjects. Of 35 primary school kids at a weekend coding camp, only five were girls. Of those five girls, Sandberg herself had enrolled two of them (her niece and her niece's friend). According to Sandberg the percentage of women and girls studying ICT subjects was declining and was now lower than it was twenty years ago -  whereas in most other disciplines and professions the share of female graduates has continued to rise.

The bottom line is that we need to encourage and expose women to the fantastic opportunities created by studying and working in ICT. We need deliberate and directed action focused on motivating women to pursue ICT subjects and careers and promoting female role models in Computer Science who can tell their stories about the positive social impact careers in computing can have.


Just as most students of mathematics will not become engineers or actuaries and most students of English will never write a novel, so most children who learn how to code at school will not become software developers.

But the training in logic and the understanding of how machines think will enable them better to engage in any and every course of life and career they pursue.

Our future, our prosperity depends on our being more innovative, more competitive and we simply cannot do that unless we are as technically literate as the other nations with which we compete.

In a nutshell we need knowledge and imagination. The former on its own is a dull resource, the latter on its own is a hallucination. Combined they will ensure an Australian future which is more exciting, more prosperous than ever before.







[1] Originally published in The Age, 8 Sept 2014. Available online at: www.smh.com.au/it-pro/expertise/it-crowd-shrinking-as-vce-enrolments-plummet-20140907-10dizx.html

[2] As published in SMH Oct 7 2014 “20-year-slide in students taking maths in final year”.

[3] Australian Industry Group report Lifting Our Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM) Skills report


[4] Sue Thompson et al. Highlights from TIMSS and PIRLS 2011 from Australia’s perspective, Australian Council for Educational Research, 2012 (quoted in AiG report)

[5] Australian Workforce and Productivity Agency, ICT Skills Forum presentation,  November 2012 (quoted in AiG Report)

[6] http://www.obhe.ac.uk/newsletters/borderless_report_january_2013/global_race_for_stem_skills

[7] Beanland,D.; How Engineers Australia can support the transformation of engineering education in Australian universities, 30,10,2012 (quoted in AiG report)

[8] Australia’s skills and workforce development needs, Discussion Paper, Australian Workforce and Productivity Agency, July 2012 (as quoted in AiG report)

[9] Science, Technology, Engineering And Mathematics: Australia’s Future, released by Australia’s Chief Scientist, Professor Ian Chubb on 2 September 2014: www.chiefscientist.gov.au/2014/09/professor-chubb-releases-science-technology-engineering-and-mathematics-australias-future/ p.7

[10] Ibid, p.7

[11] Ibid, p.7

[12] Ibid, p.7

[13] The Role of Science, Research and Technology in Llifting Australia’s Productivity, released by the Australian Council of Learned Academies, 3 June 2014. Available online at: www.acola.org.au/index.php/projects/securing-australia-s-future/project-4 p.14

[14] Australian Council of Learned Academies Media Release 3 June 2014: www.acola.org.au/index.php/news/59-research-and-innovation-critical-to-future-australian-industries-finds-new-acola-report

[15] STEM: Country Comparisons, released by the Australian Council of Learned Academies, 4 June 2014. Available online at: http://www.acola.org.au/index.php/projects/securing-australia-s-future/project-2 p.9

[16] Australian Council of Learned Academies Media Release 4 June 2014: www.acola.org.au/index.php/news/32-new-acola-report-international-comparison-study-of-stem-education

[17] Consultant Report - Securing Australia’s Future - STEM: Country Comparisons [STEM Report – Republic of Korea], Australian Council of Learned Academies, May 2013. Available online at: www.acola.org.au/index.php/stem-consultants-reports

[18] The Guardian, 4 Sept 2014. Available online at: www.theguardian.com/technology/2014/sep/04/coding-school-computing-children-programming

[19] The Guardian, 4 Sept 2014. Available online at: www.theguardian.com/technology/2014/sep/04/coding-school-computing-children-programming

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