Holly Ryan

Retail, Innovation and Manufacturing reporter for the NZ Herald

Schools failing to crack the IT code

Students wanting to learn computer programming are teaching themselves

IT experts are saying the New Zealand school curriculum isn't well aligned to the skills required for jobs in the industry, and IT teachers need  more support. Photo / Getty Images
IT experts are saying the New Zealand school curriculum isn't well aligned to the skills required for jobs in the industry, and IT teachers need more support. Photo / Getty Images

Kiwi school kids interested in computer programming are being forced to teach themselves as the education system fails to keep pace with the rapidly evolving technology sector, say IT experts.

In 2011, the New Zealand Qualifications Association introduced computer programming as a recognised NCEA subject. Since then, the number of students enrolled in computing papers has remained steady.

However, a vast number of extra-curricular programmes and groups have sprouted up, with technology leaders such as Microsoft and Orion Health providing online courses for students looking to teach themselves how to code and programme.

Director of developer experience at Microsoft New Zealand, Nigel Parker, said the growth of programmes such as Microsoft's YouthSpark and Student Accelerator were a reflection of the growing interest in coding, however he said this should be a bigger focus in schools, not just an extra-curricular subject.

"Why should all of this be done outside the school day?" Parker said. "I don't necessarily feel the curriculum in New Zealand is aligned to the skills required for the jobs that are available in the industry," he said.

"So it's almost like there's a need for people to go outside school and we're seeing a lot of young people who are self-teaching."

Renea Mackie, co-founder of IT Hothouse and UPT Digital, believes things are changing but not fast enough.

"I think the world is changing faster than the education system is. A lot faster.

"The education system is a slow-moving beast and it's difficult to identify what needs to be done and how it needs to fit into the curriculum," Mackie said.

She is one of a number of individuals trying to facilitate the teaching of coding in schools. She found there were a huge number of students at Christchurch's Unlimited Paenga Tawhiti school (UPT) who were teaching themselves to code during lunchtime and after school.

She began asking other schools about their coding programmes but found everyone was in the same boat.

"No one really knew how to tackle the problem and the teachers felt quite intimidated because they felt they didn't have the knowledge they needed," Mackie said.

She decided to take matters into her own hands, setting up UPT Digital in 2009. Her programme has been running for six years and has students ranging from the age of 10 to 18.

The programme is co-ordinated with tech businesses in the area, and the students are mentored by senior software developer Mark Finch from Microsoft in Redmond, Seattle. Mackie said one of the main issues was a lack of support for teachers wanting to teach code.

Gerard MacManus, head of technology at St Bede's College in Christchurch and president of the New Zealand digital tech teachers association, agrees.

According to MacManus, current teachers are not being provided with enough resources and ongoing personal development and training to upskill into technology areas.

"It's not a quick fix. It is going to take time," MacManus said.

"Everyone says right, let's go through another review around digital technologies, and I kind of look at it and go well hang on, aspects of it do need review but it doesn't need a major shift," he said. "We will see more students coming through but we need the teachers."

While he sees the lack of support for teaching as an issue, MacManus said the subject itself was growing rapidly and schools were churning out students who were creators of technology, not just consumers.

"It's a change of student nature," MacManus said.

"We're now starting to get students who instead of taking a science are now looking at taking digital technologies. There's a much bigger group looking at this as a career."

This year, the British Government launched an initiative, Year for Code, pledging £500,000 ($983,000) towards training teachers in programming. This will be followed in September by a compulsory computing syllabus for children between 5 and 16.

The idea of coding and computer programming may not appeal to everyone but a sector that provides job opportunities, interesting work and good pay seems a good fit for the education system.

- NZ Herald

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