There’s a new R in town: computeRs. While most concentrate on how to teach the three R’s - Reading, wRiting and aRithmetic - computer literacy hardly rates a mention. Edward Mandla, President of the Australian Computer Society (ACS) has stated on many occasions, “Students leaving school who are not computer literate are setting themselves up for a life with limited opportunities”.
Information and communication technologies (ICT) have become all invasive within out lives. Most jobs today require access and use of a computer and related technology. ICT is where we are increasingly accessing our news, entertainment, do our shopping, find jobs and communicate with each other.
There is no clear curricular on how to teach ICT in our school system. This is especially so in our primary schools where teachers with no formal ICT training are teaching what they know, often which is less than some of their students. Although there appears to be a more formalised approach to teaching ICT in high school (where it is mainly an elective), it is too late for many. Like the three R’s, ICT needs to be taught from the start. Imagine the state of literacy in this country if we took this same approach with the three R’s.
It is now clear that students are leaving the school system with varying levels of ICT literacy. Those who are best equipped are the lucky ones who attended a school that had the resources and know how to deliver relevant ICT courses. Unfortunately, many schools are being left behind with outdated and non-functioning equipment, no technical support and teachers who are teaching ICT because they drew the short straw. It is now apparent that this country will see the emergence of a digital divide. There will be those who will have access to information and how to use it, and there will be those who won’t. For those left behind, their future looks bleak in the age of information.
The ACS is about to relaunch its ICT Literacy in Australian Schools policy to government. When it was first launched, it was largely ignored. The policy calls for the development and testing of a national standard for ICT literacy consistent with the national standards for numeracy and literacy. It should be applied to all primary and secondary students. The policy also outlines impediments to achieving this.
There are many who believe that having computers in the classroom is all that is required. Having up-to-date computers is one thing, keeping them going is another. Only the richest schools or those with dedicated volunteers are able to support the school’s computer systems. There are schools where the computers simply do not work. During some time off, I was a volunteer teacher’s assistant for my son’s class. I used to arrive a half an hour early to ensure that all the computers would turn on. Many required resetting for which technical skills were required. The school now has a dedicated support person funded by the Parents and Friends Association. Our school is in a rich area and can afford to do so, many can’t.
Teachers also need to be ICT literate and given formal training. They need ongoing support and training to gain the necessary knowledge, skills and confidence to teach ICT. Many teachers find their students know more than they do. The problem is that most teachers are digital immigrants teaching to digital natives. Many teachers remember a time when there were no PC’s, no mobile phones and no Internet. For the digital natives, these have always been there.
There are many ICT professionals out in the community who are in the twilight of their careers and would make excellent ICT teachers. However, the requirements for these ICT professionals to become teachers are to say the least, over the top. Even though many have more than one degree, they are still required to undertake a four to five year full-time course to become a teacher. You may have a PhD, but if you don’t have a teaching degree, schools in NSW can be fined $11,000 for employing you.
One key requirement to having a nation of ICT literate students is access to true broadband (and not the dribble that is dished up by the Telco’s). Students need access to broadband of at least 5 megabits per second (ten times faster than a current ADSL connection). Access needs to be at home also, however not all families can afford broadband connection, let alone a computer.
Tasmania is showing the way in providing everyone with fast broadband. They have begun successful trials of broadband delivered via the states electricity power lines. They are achieving speeds of up to 12 megabits per second (24 times faster). Add to this are devices coming onto the market, which will allow you to access the Internet via your TV, giving families an affordable solution to provide their children with broadband access.
One initiative the governments can undertake is to have a dedicated support centre for our schools. The support centre, if set up correctly, can have access to the schools computers to support them remotely. The centre can provide support and advice. After all, most organisations today have a support centre in place.
By providing the necessary infrastructure and support, teachers can concentrate on gaining the required skills to enable their students to function in the digital age. The state and federal governments need to implement a national ICT literacy standard, which will not only provide students with the knowledge to use technology, but to also enable them to use it in an ethical, responsible and secure way.
We need a long-term national ICT plan. Many of our neighbours already have this in place. India has benefited greatly from incorporating a long-term national ICT plan and is now an IT powerhouse. It was a pity that Kim Beazley’s Knowledge Nation was ridiculed. Personally, I didn’t see what the fuss was over, and as for calling his blueprint a "noodle nation" - I deal with diagrams like that everyday of my working life. The fact is our federal government is just not interested in ICT. This is a pity, because as a nation, if we are not ICT literate, we will not be able to compete with those countries that are. We will end up being road kill.