Building students' ICT skills for the 21st century- what is the answer?

One of the possible interpretation of the decline in ICT literacy is that the increased use if mobile technology devices has resulted in less emphasis on communication applications.

The close of last year saw a flurry of government and media comment focusing on Australia’s recent performance in various STEM benchmarking tests, writes IEU VicTAS Assistant Secretary Cathy Hickey.

Australia’s students are falling behind in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics. What’s the problem and what are the answers? It’s time to move beyond the quick fix.

In mid November last year, the 2014 National Assessment Program (NAP) ICT Literacy Report was released by the Education Council (of education ministers). While the report confirmed the general belief that Australian students are frequent users of computer technology and continue to express interest and enjoyment when working with computers, the report showed a significant decline in their ICT literacy compared to previous performance.

There was a decline in the mean performance of Year 6 students in 2014, compared to the last assessment in 2011. Similarly, the mean performance of Year 10 students is significantly lower than the mean performance in all previous NAP-ICT literacy assessments (2005, 2008 and 2011).

The NAP-ICT literacy test assesses student ICT knowledge, understanding and skills, as well as students’ ability to use ICT creatively, critically and responsibly. In October and November 2014, approximately 10,500 Year 6 and Year 10 students participated in the NAP-ICT literacy online test. Samples of students were randomly selected from over 650 government, Catholic and independent schools in metropolitan, rural and remote areas around the country.

The results showed that 55% of Year 6 students achieved expected standards, and 52% of Year 10 students achieved the proficient standards, being deemed competent in completing “challenging but reasonable” tasks, such as the creation of tables and charts, sorting data in a spreadsheet or editing graphics and text. State and territory figures ranged from 43% (Year 10) in the Northern Territory to 60% in the ACT.

Decline from previous years

The decline from previous years has raised interesting challenges. The percentage of students meeting or exceeding the Proficient standards for Year 6 increased by 13 percentage points from 49% to 62% between 2005 and 2011, however the percentage decreased between 2011 and 2014. The percentage of students attaining the Proficient standard for Year 10 had been stable from 2005 to 2011, but it dropped from 65 to 52 between 2011 and 2014.

Where are the challenge areas?

The report highlights that most of the relationships between ICT literacy and student characteristics have remained similar over time, so it does not appear that the overall decline is associated with particular groups of students. The decreases also appear to be similar in each of the jurisdictions (state and sector).

That being said, there are differences in performance that (and teachers will say ‘continue’ to) stand out:

That being said, there are differences in performance that (teachers say ‘continue to’) stand out:

Students with unemployed parents or parents with very low levels of education, had lower test scores.

Students with parents who were senior managers or professionals, or had attained a bachelor degree or above, had higher test scores than those with parents who were unskilled labourers, office or sales staff, or had a Year 9 level of education or below.

Non metropolitan students – inner city Year 6 students are achieving the highest scores in computer literacy (58%) compared to students in provincial areas (48% and those in remote areas (36%)

Indigenous students – these students performed lower than non Indigenous students over the past nine years – 57% of Year 6 non Indigenous students achieved the expected level of competency in 2014, compared to 22% of Indigenous students.

Boys – while boys tend to be more confident in performing computer related tasks, girls are more digitally competent. Sixty per cent of Year 6 girls attained an expected level of competency, compared to 52% of boys.

Reasons for the decline

The NAP-ICT Literacy Report proposes that the decline does not appear to be a result of changes in the test content, in the way the test was administered or sample obtained. It puts forward that one of the possible interpretations of the decline in ICT literacy is that the increased use of mobile technology devices has resulted in less emphasis on communication applications. It proposes that it is also possible that there has been less emphasis placed in schools on the teaching of skills associated with ICT literacy, with the development of young people’s literacy competencies increasingly being taken for granted.

The problem is not so simple

Research by Michael Phillips, lecturer in Digital Technologies at Monash University believes that the challenges may be much more complicated than this. He outlines that the issues may be focused on the ways in which teachers, school principals and policy makers negotiate learning outcomes in terms of both knowledge and skills. He says that the most significant challenge facing us now is to consider the ways in which digital technology is being used, or not used, in schools. In his view, current data underpinning decision making and the new digital technologies curriculum isn’t working for ICT in schools for the following four reasons:

Curriculum is taking too long to introduce – he states that the new digital technologies curriculum will take several years to become fully embedded in schools. This doesn’t help the current generation of students as teachers try to grapple with changes to the curriculum and the expectations of learning outcomes.

Teachers are not equipped with the skills they need – teachers in schools are not given enough professional support to understand how digital technologies can be used effectively in the ICT classroom. Another challenge teachers face, he says, is that the resources provided often become rapidly outdated as the focus of curriculum changes.

There is too much choice of digital tools to use – it is already very challenging for teachers to be able to make effective and informed choices about what technology to focus on and when. This will only become more challenging.

Outdated skills – the way teachers consider digital technology use in schools has changed over the past decade. While it may be considered important to have an understanding of basic computer skills, it is the application of those skills in new and different scenarios that may contribute to students’ future capabilities.

Where is the ICT funding?

While the December meeting of the country’s education ministers (the Australian Council) endorsed the Federal Government’s new STEM strategy, it also warned that more federal funding may be need for the states to pay for the measures. Media reported that the Council Chairwoman and Queensland Education Minister, Kate Jones, said that the states expressed concern that the STEM strategy, including the need to train and recruit more specialised teachers, would be difficult to implement unless the federal government reinstated $30 billion in schools funding cut in last year’s budget.

Not only is an increase in funding necessary, but there are continuing concerns about the wastage of education dollars in failed implementation of technology in schools and TAFEs. Most recently in December last year, NSW Education Minister Adrian Piccoli, was under fire over the installation of the Learning Management and Business Reform Program to schools and TAFE after it was revealed the cost had blown out to $576 million. Schools described the rollout as shambolic and it led to staff taking stress leave. An Upper House inquiry into TAFE recommended the government cut its losses and abolish the computer system in TAFE. In a separate report tabled in December, the NSW Auditor-General said TAFE’s component of the botched system cost $40.2 million. NSW is not the only state with this problem.

It surely must be time for a well thought out and resourced strategy for ICT education in schools.


National Assessment Program -ICT Literacy Years 6 and 10 Report 2014, Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority 2015

M. Phillips, ICT is failing in schools. Here’s why. The Conversation, 19 November 2015