Digital technologies in the curriculum: Alternative facts or significant policy change?

Dr Louise Starkey, Victoria University of Wellington

The Minister of Education’s announcement on 28 June that Digital Technologies |Hangarau Matihiko is being strengthened in the New Zealand curriculum was not a surprise as this was indicated last year in the media. What is interesting is the framing of this initiative and the response.

Digital Technologies in the curriculum

The revision to the curriculum strengthens Digital Technologies | Hangarau Matihiko by making computational thinking and coding explicit within the Technology learning area of the New Zealand Curriculum and Te Marautanga o Aotearoa.

The economic rationale

The Minister’s announcement was framed within the need to have the next generation digitally fluent. The rationale is an economic argument focused on future employment in the IT industry, developing entrepreneurship and international competitiveness. Digital technologies (or coding/computational thinking) has been introduced to the curriculum in countries such as England and Australia, and there is demand for IT skills in the workforce.  Therefore, the change to the New Zealand curriculum is focused on specifying coding and computational thinking, an aspect of technology that some schools and kura already incorporate into their programme. However, coding or computational thinking is only one aspect of digital fluency or literacy. Digital fluency also includes the ability to use technology to: communicate, problem solve, collaborate, and manage your digital footprint and data. While other aspects of digital fluency/literacy may be implicit in the current curriculum documents or support offered through to schools, the Minister’s framing of this educational decision within an economic context appears to have narrowed this curriculum revision to coding or computational thinking.

Teaching the next generation to be digitally fluent could alternatively be framed within a social argument that considers what is best for all New Zealanders in a broader (not just economic) sense. Digital divides occur through differences in access, capability or knowledge about how to participate in a digital world. To minimise digital divides, a curriculum needs to develop people’s capability through the specific teaching of skills and knowledge and also teach children how to participate in the digital world. Such a framing of the reasons for promoting digital fluency may have resulted in a broader revision that explicitly included a range of generic and subject specific digital capabilities or literacies across the curriculum. The new move to include computational thinking or coding in the curriculum, and the support that has been announced in terms of making this available across contexts and relevant within both curriculum documents, are examples of how a school curriculum can be used to bridge digital divides. However, unfortunately, this potential was limited in the recent announcement by the narrow focus derived from the framing within an economic argument. I hope that future curriculum revisions will consider a wider context of digital fluency to provide an equitable curriculum for a digital age.

Mandatory requirement?

Following the announcement, an alternative fact has been circulated in the media that the learning of coding will be a mandatory requirement or part of a core curriculum. Currently the National Administration Guidelines (NAGS) require that each Board of Trustees ‘provides all students in years 1-10 with opportunities to achieve for success in all areas of the National Curriculum’ (Guideline 1.a.i.). However, despite this mention of ‘all areas’ of the curriculum, the NAGS place a priority on literacy, numeracy and physical activity in primary schools (Guideline 1.a. ii and iii), meaning that other ‘areas’ of the curriculum are not identified as priorities. Therefore, under current requirements, the teaching of an aspect of technology (digital technology) is no more or less mandatory or core than the teaching of an aspect of science, dance, drama or te reo Māori in mainstream schools.

Under the current governance framework, each Board of Trustees, through the principal, has responsibility for deciding how either the New Zealand Curriculum or Te Marautanga o Aotearoa is implemented within their school. If there is a requirement that the digital technologies aspect of the technology learning area is to be mandatory (and if this is not an ‘alternative fact’) then following that same logic would suggest that all other aspects of the curriculum are mandatory, or ‘core’, to be taught to year 1-10 students and are not just to be offered if they are prioritised by the school. This would mean a significant rethinking for curriculum design and delivery for schools. The response to this announcement seems to assume that there will be a change to either the NAGS or the broader governance framework that outlines how curriculum implementation decisions are made at the schooling level, in order to be able to make these new digital technology skills mandatory.

The development of a curriculum for the digital age is an evolving process and appears to have implications not only for what is taught, but also for how curriculum content is prioritised and developed within a schooling context. The framing of the rationale for change within an economic context has narrowed the revision of NZ’s digital technologies curriculum to one aspect of digital fluency, and if it is to be a mandatory curriculum requirement, this suggests a stepping away from context-focused, self-managing schools and towards greater central control of school based curriculum.

Louise square.jpg

Dr Louise Starkey gained experience as a classroom teacher, curriculum leader and senior manager in a range of New Zealand secondary schools prior to following a passion to research education in a digital age. She is interested in complexity theory, educational policy and practice associated with teaching and learning in the digital age. Her research includes both the schooling and university sectors.

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