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It takes a tech sector to raise a digital child

Tue 9 Aug 2016
FYI, this story is more than a year old

The government’s decision to embed digital education in the NZ school curriculum is a vital step forward, says Evan Blackman (Education Sector Director for Microsoft New Zealand) but government needs to look to the NZ tech sector for partnerships that will deliver the vision.

If there’s anything that New Zealand can learn from the immediate fallout following the Brexit referendum in the UK, it’s this; going back to the ‘good old days’, to a time before current realities of the global economy existed, is not the way to build a solid foundation for a strong future for the next generation.

The current reality is that, like it or not, we live in a digital world. The global economy today is built on a digital infrastructure that underpins almost every business and organisation operating today. Now more than ever, to compete in such a world we need to be digitally fluent. Moreover, into the future, our children will need to be digitally fluent.

So when and where do we learn digital fluency? It may start with familiarity with consumer technology and gadgets in the home from a young age, but at some point – to become the innovators and developers that will build the businesses of the future – our children will need to learn how to create and develop that technology, not just consume it.

The recent NZ Tech report ‘Digital Nation’ highlighted some key statistics that show how the tech industry is an economic multiplier. The combined tech sector in New Zealand accounted for about 8% of GDP in 2015, contributed 8% to exports and employed about 5% of the total workforce – that’s about 100,000 jobs adding $16.2 billion to the economy. What’s more, each new tech sector job creates up to five new services jobs around it.

This will increase exponentially in the decades to come as the world becomes increasingly data driven at every level of society. Many of the jobs that will be associated with running this digital world do not even exist yet, but what we do know is that many of jobs that exist today will be rendered obsolete in a world of automation, the Internet of Things and Artificial Intelligence.

The announcement from Education Minister Hekia Parata that digital technology will now be formally made part of the New Zealand school curriculum from Year One is a crucial and welcome step in the right direction of growing young people matched for this future digital workplace. While this is an excellent initiative for which the government should be applauded, we believe it could be more ambitious in addressing the depth of education that will be required for building the digital fluency that will be required for students treading the career pathways in tomorrow’s world.

Throughout the world teachers and educationalists are grappling with 21st century teaching and how to use technology to enable better learning outcomes. While access to devices is important, research clearly shows that it is not just the technology that schools have but the way they use it to enhance learning that is most impactful.

Certainly there is some amazing work being done by individual teachers and particular schools. Similarly, initiatives like the High Tech Youth Network, OMG Tech, The Mindlab and the Imagine Academy are all excellent programmes that are having a significant impact in their respective parts of the community, but can’t achieve the higher goal by themselves. An overall change of focus for the education system is needed if we really are to inspire a nation of Curious Minds, as the government programme launched in 2014 envisions.

We believe there are three core challenges that need to be addressed:

  • The lack of teacher supply – both qualified computer science teachers, and teachers who have been empowered to incorporate digital elements to their subject areas.
  • How to ensure that every student – regardless of background – has the opportunity to access digital technology education and the tools required for this.
  • The need for strong pathways from secondary and tertiary levels through to real world employment opportunities in the digital technology sector.

So, what are we saying to the government? As a tech sector representative needing the digital skills of the next generation before too long we believe there needs to be an effective working partnership between the government, the education sector and the local New Zealand tech industry to fully bring the vision of digital fluency for a digital nation to reality.

There is currently a shortage of digital technology students in New Zealand, but the problem is not demand by industry or higher education, it’s supply. NZ Tech has estimated there are 10,000 digital technology jobs that are going unfilled as the skilled workforce is not available locally.

We believe there is a real risk that we will fail to nurture the next big Kiwi start-up if the digital divide between higher and lower socio-economic communities is not addressed. Every student must have access to the connectivity, cloud, software, devices and digital tools for learning to engage in the new curriculum.

Equally, educators will need help in building the pathways that will equip students for technology careers from primary, through high-school and tertiary education into workplaces. The private tech sector is best placed – and ready and willing – to step in to assist teachers to deliver this so that today’s students can compete and embrace the new world of work that is coming.

There are already working models in New Zealand business that are showing the way forward. A wide range of companies are utilising Microsoft’s Student Accelerator internship programme to find their next generation of developers and innovators from qualified talent fresh from university to work on real world projects.

What is crucial is that schools understand the vision of digital fluency, and not be distracted by the notion that the technology itself that will achieve that vision. Schools can make expensive mistakes if the focus is all on the technology; such as simply buying tablets for every student will not achieve the goal. Learning without limits is important, and we too often see students disappointed when the tools limit their learning.

The Digital Education in curriculum announcement is an exciting and positive development. The opportunity now is to implement it on a scale that ensures New Zealand really does become a nation of curious minds building on its history and reputation as an innovative, outward looking nation.

In 2016 the ways of the past will not secure a prosperous digital future for our children or future generations. The NZ tech sector is ready to meet the challenge and looks forward to engaging with government in a genuine partnership to make it happen.

Article by Evan Blackman, Microsoft Blog Network

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