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Preparing for a digital future

To ensure students are digitally competent requires the development of not only information literacy but also knowledge, skills and understanding of computer science and computational thinking.

In August, leading international and Australian researchers will come together for ACER’s Research Conference 2019 addressing the theme ‘Preparing students for life in the 21st century: Identifying, developing and assessing what matters’.

Monash University’s Professor Neil Selwyn, who will deliver the conference’s Karmel Oration, says our day-to-day lives are now distinctly different than they were 20 years ago, and we should expect considerable change to unfold throughout the remainder of the 21st century.

‘While we can speculate on what the schools of 2069 might be like, it is far more useful to focus on the education challenges of the 2020s,’ Professor Selwyn says.

One of these challenges, according to Professor Selwyn, is how best to engage with digital technology.

‘The 2020s will arguably be the first full ‘post-digital’ decade. Digital technologies will become entwined across all aspects of education to the extent that they largely stop being noticeable,’ Professor Selwyn says.

Several conference presentations will focus on digital competence. ACER Research Director, Assessment and Reporting (Mathematics and Science), Julian Fraillon, will discuss changes to computing instruction in schools since the late 20th century.

‘Early conceptualisations of digital literacy, such as Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) literacy emphasised information literacy skills and deliberately de-emphasised computing skills,’ Mr Fraillon says. ‘Since the beginning of the 21st century, however, there has been increasing recognition of the importance of understanding aspects of computing.’

Mr Fraillon, who is also the director of the 2018 International Computer and Information Literacy Study (ICILS), says three main areas of emphasis in digital competence have evolved over recent decades: computer science; ICT/digital literacies; and computational thinking/digital technologies.

While ICT and computer science have been present in the school curriculum for decades, computational thinking is a more recent addition, having been introduced within the Digital Technologies learning area of the Australian Curriculum in 2014.

Computational thinking is neatly defined in the ICILS 2018 assessment framework as ‘an individual’s ability to recognize aspects of real-world problems which are appropriate for computational formulation and to evaluate and develop algorithmic solutions to those problems so that the solutions could be operationalized with a computer’.

ACER Research Fellow Daniel Duckworth says computational thinking does not necessarily involve developing or implementing a formal computer code.

‘From Foundation to Year 2, students develop skills in computational thinking to understand digital systems to organise, manipulate and present data and begin to conceptualise algorithms as a sequence of steps for carrying out instructions,’ Mr Duckworth says.

‘One example given in the Australian Curriculum content descriptions is identifying the steps of making a sandwich. At the most basic level, a student might simply provide the instruction, ‘make a sandwich’. However, as students develop skills in CT they are able to differentiate between a process and a set of instructions required to complete a process by identifying significant steps such as ‘put the bread flat on the table’, ‘open the jar’, ‘put the knife in the jar’, etcetera.’

In terms of how to measure computational thinking, Mr Duckworth says common elements in assessments are the capturing of instructions developed by students and the judging of the quality of those instructions against a set of criteria reflecting aspects of computational thinking. ■

Further information:
Neil Selwyn, Julian Fraillon and Daniel Duckworth will be speaking at Research Conference 2019, addressing the theme, ‘Preparing students for life in the 21st Century: Identifying, developing and assessing what matters’, from 4-5 August at the Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre. Download the conference proceedings.

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