Sewing, cooking, woodwork... IT? Why Government must urgently fix the curriculum to get kids into computing

Orion Health CEO Ian McCrae says lumping IT in with other “tech” subjects at school is putting bright kids off, and exacerbating the skills shortage.

When Ian McCrae’s teenage son took digital technologies as one of his NCEA subjects, the Orion Health boss was pleased. With a serious IT skills shortage affecting businesses like his, one more student heading towards computer science at university was a bonus.

A few months down the track, McCrae’s view changed. He was shocked to find that instead of learning coding and working on algorithms, his son seemed to be spending his time writing reports - part of a curriculum which sees ICT lumped in with woodwork and sewing, not science and maths.

“I suspect you can do the entire digital tech course without writing a line of code,” McCrae says – correctly, as it turns out.

McCrae says instead of studying topics like coding, algorithms and logical reasoning, his son’s high school digital technology curriculum shares modules with the other tech subjects like hard tech (woodwork and metalwork), soft tech (sewing) and food tech (cooking). These courses involve a lot of lengthy report-writing, which also puts potential IT students off.

Gerard MacManus, president of the NZ Association for Computing and Digital Information Technology Teachers, says the problem arises because the supporting material for digital tech courses is written for other technology programmes.

"We are a poor cousin at the moment."

OMGTech is one of a number of organisations teaching kids coding 

Just as importantly, says Ian McCrae, putting digital tech in with the other tech subjects means many clever students aren’t choosing it.

“Bright kids coming through the school system are being turned off computing because digital technologies is considered a dumb subject. Clever kids do chemistry or physics, but those naturally lead on to chemistry or physics courses at university, not computer science.”

McCrae argues this is crazy, because IT is where the jobs are – not chemistry. And it leaves companies like Orion Health forced to find their developers overseas, or poach them from other IT companies – companies like Xero, Diligent, Trade Me or Wynyard Group – all of which are themselves struggling to find experienced staff.

Ian McCrae

“Look on Trade Me,” says McCrae. “There are maybe 200 science jobs, and 1200 jobs for students with computer science.”

It may be a crude measure, but a rough search on Trade Me jobs reinforces just what McCrae is saying.

  • Number of jobs when you put “computer” in the search box = 1618, with 47 paying over $100,000.

  • Number of jobs when you put “science” in the search = 155, with 22 paying over $100,000.

  • Number of jobs when you put “chemistry” in the search = 22, with two paying over $100,000.

Five of the top 10 best-paying jobs in 2014 were in IT, according to the Careers NZ website.

The New Zealand Government needs to fix the school curriculum, McCrae says, including encouraging teachers to teach coding and programming – and giving them the professional development they need.

“It’s very hard to find good teachers when the pay and the hours are better in the private sector, you don’t get parents hassling you, and you get a flash Apple computer.

“And [teachers struggle with the fact] that if the clever kids get into programming, within weeks they know more than the teacher does. It’s hard for a teacher to keep up.”

MacManus says professional development for teachers is a critical problem. There is no course that teachers can go to learn how to teach digital technologies ("it's assumed they come in with that knowledge"), and the salary differentials means it's unlikely IT professionals will leave the private sector to go into schools.

OMGTech

New Zealand needs to follow the lead of the UK, where major changes to the curriculum have already happened, McCrae says.

In September 2014, the UK became what the Guardian newspaper called “the guinea pig for the most ambitious attempt yet to get kids coding”. Curriculum changes saw ICT (information and communications technology) replaced by “computing”, including coding for children as young as five.

“ICT used to focus purely on computer literacy” – teaching pupils how to use a computer, said then education secretary Michael Gove, announcing the changes in 2013.

“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.”

And in New Zealand?

Ministry of Education deputy secretary Graham Stoop says there are coding and algorithm options in the curriculum, but they aren’t compulsory; instead each school chooses whether to teach them or not.

“We don’t have information about what influences students to choose particular subjects, however we do know that the number of students taking digital technology for NCEA is considerably lower than for subjects like maths and science,” he says.

The ministry is looking into changes to the digital tech curriculum as part of the Nation of Curious Minds project – a three year strategy for strengthening the place of science and technology in society over the next ten years, Stoop says.

“We are working in partnership with key education stakeholders, education leaders, business representatives and leading academics from both English and Māori medium to understand the skills they want to see students being equipped with.

“The next step in 2016 will be to indicate to schools what changes are likely to be made to the curriculum and then work with our stakeholders to determine how to implement those changes with a view to them being adopted by schools and kura in 2017.”

MacManus says he was one of many participants that made suggestions to the Ministry of Education, but he isn't sure whether the officials were listening.

He says "computational thinking", not just coding, needs to be introduced into the curriculum – and it needs to start right from year 0, when a child starts school.

Any change can’t come soon enough, says McCrae – and it needs to get far more students into the IT industry.

“We have to get the smart, academic kids exposed to logic, to reasoning, to coding; get them passionate about it and then they will follow on with computing. They are the people who will build the next Orion, the next Trade Me, the next Wynyard."

What should they be when they grow up?

We asked Ian McCrae’s what three IT jobs our kids should be aiming for:

  • Data scientist. The industry is crying out for people that can take all those numbers coming out of the cloud and make sense of them;

  • Mobility expert. No, not walking about. Mobility is all about doing clever stuff for mobile devices;

  • Cyber security guru. McCrae spoke to one US company recently that estimated 80% (yes 80%!) of the traffic to their site is “inappropriate” - ie unwanted or dangerous. There aren’t nearly enough experts blocking all that stuff.