Digital technologies:

A step-by-step approach

An IEU member took part in a four-year program to familiarise teachers with Digital Technologies. Sue Osborne finds out what she learnt.

A Digital Technologies in Focus project run by the Australain Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA) involved more than 2000 teachers in 160 schools with a low ranking on the index of community socio-educational advantage. They received support from curriculum support officers, had access to teachers from other sectors and school levels, and input from industry experts.

There was a particular emphasis on regional and remote schools across Australia.

The project was recognised by Deakin University as having improved student engagement and achievement in some of the country’s most disadvantaged schools. It has also provided timely tech skills to teachers.

IEU member Beck Keough, from St Bernard’s Primary School, Batemans Bay, on the NSW south coast, was one of the teachers who took part. (She taught at nearby St Mary’s Primary School, Moruya, during the project)

Keough said she had always been interested in information technology and STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and mathematics), but she became “fired up” about Digital Technologies when she understood the subject was all about sequential or computational thinking, not just “robots and programming”.

That is when the kids are most engaged – not when you have all the bells and whistles, but when they’re making connections and engaging in authentic experiences.

“It made sense to me,” Keough said. “I saw that the type of analytical, procedural and computational thinking required for Digital Technologies could be incredibly useful to the students across all teaching and learning areas,” Keough said.

She said some schools teach Digital Technologies as a stand-alone topic, while others embed it across many subjects, which is how ACARA intends it to be taught.

Initial reluctance

Keough said some staff were initially reluctant to engage with Digital Technologies.

“Teachers immediately feel challenged by it if they feel they require advanced skills in using hardware, but technology can just mean a pen after all,” she said.

“They also worry it is another new thing to implement on top of their busy schedule.

“However, once we were able to demonstrate that it’s just a way of thinking, such as being about doing things step-by-step, without even a computer involved, teachers started to relax and warm to it.”

Keough likened the computational thinking in Digital Technologies to a recipe. “We demonstrated this by having students ‘program’ a teacher,” she said. “The students gave input and the teacher produced the output.”

Keough shared what she learned from the program with her colleagues. She introduced the topic to teachers in a practical way so they could incorporate it into what they taught on a day-to-day basis, as opposed to having to rewrite lessons. For example, in teaching about living things, a kindergarten teacher found a way to introduce Digital Technologies into her class. They brought fish in a tank into the classroom, and the children had to come up with a step-by step procedure for cleaning the tank.

“In Year 4 we used a micro:bit and programmed it to create a dice game, which teachers could easily use as a warm-up for their maths lessons,” Keough said.

In another example, a kindergarten class used data based on students’ favourite ice cream flavours as part of a maths lesson that incorporated the data component of the Digital Curriculum. A Year 6 teacher integrated algorithms by looking at how the school was sorting rubbish.

“Teachers doing beading or threading in kindergarten are engaging in exploring patterns, which is part of the Digital Technologies curriculum, and they do this without even knowing it.

“That is when the kids are most engaged – not when you have all the bells and whistles, but when they’re making connections and they are engaging in authentic experiences. That’s when they can see a purpose in what they are learning.

“At the start of the lesson, if you can explain how the skill relates to digital thinking it changes things. I believe that if students understand why they’re learning a concept, and why it’s important to them in their world, there’s a big shift in the way they engage.

“The most exciting part for me as a classroom teacher is finding the way to include digital tech in an authentic way that’s not an add on, when I can connect it to other curriculum areas,” she said.

Sharing the workload

Working collaboratively — sharing their successful experiments, and even allowing students with programming or 3D printing and computer assisted design (CAD) experience to share their knowledge with teachers and other students — eased some of the anxieties around technology.

“By the end of the Digital Technologies in Focus project, teachers realise there are so many ways that you can engage with the Digital Technologies curriculum,” Keough said.

“Now teachers are asking questions and taking on challenges to improve their own practice. We’ve grown a lot in that respect.”

Although St Mary’s does not rate highly on the index of community socio-educational advantage (it is in a region hard hit by bushfires during the 2019 Black Summer and COVID), a lack of access to devices at homes was not a problem.

The school already had a 1:2 device ratio, which made the project achievable when the teachers engaged in programming or other digital learning activities.

However, much of Digital Technologies involves learning how to think like a programmer and write in a sequential way, not necessarily in front of a screen.

“We’ve needed to amp up our ICT capabilities due to COVID, and staff who had participated in the Digital Technology in Focus program were really empowered,” Keough said.

ACARA Senior Curriculum Manager Julie King said, “The need for professional learning nationally was high and particularly so in disadvantaged schools where students often have limited access to digital devices at home, and so the school’s role is critical.

“Spending such a long time with the schools meant the mentors were able to build an ecosystem of support and that contributed significantly to the success of the program and to sustaining important long-term change.

“Students showed increased engagement in learning computational thinking, design thinking and problem solving. A lot of teachers told us they saw many students, who might normally lack confidence in the classroom, really shine, and every school involved reported positive outcomes for student inclusion and achievement.

“Many First Nations students also benefited from learning Digital Technologies through a focus on story, exploring their local language, learning on Country/Place and programming robotic devices,” King said.

As a result of the program, Keough has become a champion of the Digital Technologies subject, sharing information through social media. She has recently taken part in a podcast on the topic, in collaboration with other teachers from around Australia.

More information

  • Edulatte: A podcast for educators by educators:
  • Deakin University School of Education undertook a three-year close-up study of six schools that participated in the Digital Technologies in Focus program. Read the reports:
  • Teachers can access ACARA resources, including illustrations of practice, video content, tutorials, classroom ideas, lesson plans and assessment tasks:
  • Australian Computing Academy:
  • Follow Beck Keough on Twitter: @beckkeough1