ICT education in schools: “We can’t afford to wait”

Skills-starved tech corporates pledge $600,000 to OMGTech!, the initiative started by Vaughan Rowsell and Michelle Dickinson to inspire kids to stop gaming and start coding.

High-profile tech companies have this week pledged more than $600,000 (and rising) to OMGTech!, a not-for-profit designed to get students enthusiastic about technology – and thereby boost New Zealand’s future ICT-savvy talent pool.

OMGTech! brings school children together for day-long workshops with savvy mentors, where they build their own computer games, design 3D printed objects, do robotics, and generally have fun while learning about technology.

 

Gallery photography by Paul Petch

A year after the first workshops, the organisation wants to scale up and has turned to corporate funding to make the programme available to 200,000 children nationwide.

But as the great and the good of the tech world – plus a few dignitaries like Mayor Len Brown and Associate Education Minister Nikki Kaye – gathered at Spark City in Auckland for the official launch of the fundraising effort this week, one question Idealog was interested in was: Isn’t this what schools should be doing?

And the answer from the participants? Kiwi businesses can’t afford to wait for the Ministry of Education and the digital technology curriculum to provide them what they need.

“New Zealand definitely should be supplying a lot more developers, a lot more coders,” says Audrey Campbell-Frear, NZ country manager at US telecom software services firm Xura. The company employs up to 50 people in New Zealand “but because of the shortage, we have to bring in a lot of people from overseas”.

And the Government isn’t doing it, according to the launch MC Brooke Howard-Smith.

“For New Zealand to be on track for the next 20-30 years we will need a systemic change in education.

“But we can’t wait, which is why it is wonderful to see business partnering up.”

Spark chief operating officer David Havercroft was the first senior executive to come on board with OMGTech! With Spark pledging $150,000 in money and staff time over three years.

“We would like more of this to be happening in the curriculum, but we understand that schools are under a lot of pressure.

“We could sit back and complain about the skills shortage, and say it’s too big a problem. Or we could put energy into it and have a crack.”

Photography by Van Vairavan

He says companies are frustrated with the lack of focus on key tech skills in the curriculum, which impacted on companies being able to find ICT staff in New Zealand.

“We aren’t laying blame, but education is struggling to keep pace with technology. In five years’ time, 80% of jobs will require some technical skills.”
In an interview with Idealog earlier last month, Orion IT criticised the New Zealand curriculum for lumping IT in with subjects like sewing and woodwork, rather than with “brainy” subjects like science and maths. He called on the Government to urgently fix the way IT was taught in schools and the skill levels in teachers.

Education Minister Hekia Parata says Government initiatives launched over the last year will ensure New Zealand children have the skills they need for the future. The “Nation of Curious Minds” strategy, launched in 2014, includes a review of the digital technologies curriculum, which will be outlined to schools in 2016 and implemented in 2017, she says.

Meanwhile new initiatives were announced in September to lift teachers’ digital fluency, she said.

“The need to teach students the knowledge, skills and attitudes necessary for the digital era is beyond question. Digital fluency will become a prerequisite for obtaining jobs, participating meaningfully in society, and learning throughout a lifetime.

“Computational thinking is a key element of digital fluency, as it is a way of solving problems, designing systems, and understanding human behaviour. It is much broader than learning programming languages.”

Rowsell would agree that what he is trying to do with OMGTech goes far further than teaching kids how to code – it’s about inspiring them to explore what can be done with technology.

Photography by Van Vairavan

He says the idea for OMGTech! came from thinking about his mother, a solo mum in the 1980s, in a wheelchair and feeding her three sons off the DPB. Seeing her kids’ enthusiasm with technology, she borrowed from the bank to buy them an early-model computer, and continued to upgrade their system as they got older.

“We want to introduce kids to technology that can change their lives. Every kid should have access to the future,” Rowsell says.

Co-founder Nanogirl (and Auckland University senior engineering lecturer) Michelle Dickinson says Kiwi children shouldn’t just be using computers for gaming, but also should be learning about coding, programming, science applications, robotics – and more. Eventually this will increase the pool of tech-savvy employees available for companies like Vend, Orion Health, Xero, Spark and others frustrated at having to source so many of their clever graduates overseas.

Photography by Paul Petch

Rowsell says the skills shortage is only going to get worse.

“As new sectors and companies in the creative industries grow, we’re going to see a shortage of highly-skilled professionals to do the really valuable grunt-work. And without lots of these people we will lose out on all the great ideas being born and fostered in places with deeper talent pools.

“This problem isn’t confined to New Zealand, but will affect us more than bigger nations.

“I’m constantly thinking of ways that we can get young people more involved in tech – it starts with schooling and programmes like OMG Tech! and The Mind Lab, but there’s still a lot more we can do. We need inspirational stories to excite the next generation of kids, and then we must give them the tools and basic skills to invent. It’s about creating a pathway through the schooling system focussed on innovation and technology so they can come out the other side ready to build their ideas into businesses.”

Gallery photos by Van Vairavan