Reboot ICT teacher training to halt the computing brain drain



This article is by David Grover, Sessional lecturer in ICT at Macquarie University. It originally appeared on The Conversation.

analysis The shortage of computing experts in Australian schools has serious implications for our future as a player in the knowledge economy.

In New South Wales the number of high school students enrolled in dedicated computing courses has declined dramatically and the supply of teachers of computing has all but ceased, while these skills are more in demand than ever.

Multiple media reports over the past two years have referred to a serious shortage of skilled employees, contributing to a A$2 billion trade deficit in Australia’s digital economy. Research conducted by QUT’s Centre of Excellence for Creative Industries and Innovation leads Professor Greg Hearn to state:

“The digital industry, estimated to be worth $19 billion, includes software programming, computer games, digital videos, websites and animation. We do not have a shortage of talent in this country, but the lack of job skills here is causing many companies to look overseas for their talent.”

Australian businesses can’t find enough specialist programmers and digital designers among the Australian population because the seeds for such careers are not being effectively sown in school. If we are to inspire school students to consider these careers, several obstacles must be overcome.

It is a widespread assumption that, as “digital natives”, students have the necessary exposure to computing and to IT across the curriculum. But knowing how to use a computer for day-to-day work is not computing science, nor is it digital design.

Computing science is concerned with understanding computers rather than merely using them. Its broad field includes learning how computer systems work, following and describing algorithms (sequences of steps and decisions) through to working with others in developing digital solutions and applying this knowledge to new situations. These are the skills Australia needs.

Over the last 10 years, numbers in computing subjects at school have dropped in all states. They have more than halved in NSW and Victoria. Numbers studying mainstream computing have dropped by 70%. This rate of decline shows no signs of slowing and is even greater in the case of girls. As fewer students choose high school computing, fewer will be inspired to consider it as their career.


Drops in secondary students taking computing courses (NSW)

The availability and quality of courses is not the obstacle. NSW is arguably further ahead of the computing game than any other educational jurisdiction. The state has for many years offered well-regarded computing courses at junior and senior levels.

Despite having to wait until senior high school to study dedicated computing science, the mid-high school computing elective is rich in authentic project-based real-world IT. It delivers in-depth practical experiences in robotics, introductory programming, artificial intelligence, web design, multimedia, networking and databases.

Further, the newly minted National Curriculum in Digital Technologies offers a rigorous curriculum through to year 10. When fully implemented, this will inform future iterations of state syllabuses.

Why then the drop in numbers?

Our schools lack trained or experienced teachers of computing who will do justice to the subject. I have trained pre-service teachers at two tertiary institutions for more than 10 years. Neither institution now offers computing teaching courses.

Not one Sydney teacher training institution at present offers computing apart from the Australian Catholic University, and then only as an adjunct to specialisations in timber, textiles and metalwork. Closure of these courses is due to a lack of demand by prospective teachers. This is the result of a number of factors at work in our secondary schools, each of which can be solved.

Only a few schools, state and private, have independent departments of computing. More typically computing is the province of an industrial arts faculty. This comprises an eclectic mix of subjects with one thing in common: their names share the word technology.

The majority of such teachers have trade backgrounds (timber, metal, hospitality, textiles) rather than computing science or digital media. It is a poor fit for computing teachers and lacks a clear career path. The far greater financial rewards to be found outside the teaching profession begin to seem even more attractive.

Australia needs to take computing science seriously. School systems need separate computing departments. Where schools have well-trained, motivated and able teachers of computing, courses are well supported. Students thrive when introduced to augmented reality, 3D printing, robotics and challenging activities in programming. Falling participation in formal courses suggests this is not happening often.

The increasing popularity of some standout extra-curricular activities in computing is evidence of the talent we are squandering. Last December the “Hour of Code” global online event was held. Some 27 million students demonstrated their interest in programming.

Sydney University’s National Computer Science School (NCSS) has for 20 years conducted an intensive computer programming camp and has no shortage of applicants. Its online programming competition has proved so popular it has become an international event.

These proven initiatives should be supported by improved teacher training alongside revamped school structures. Dr James Curran of Sydney University characterises the proposed national digital technologies curriculum as a “once-in-a-generation opportunity to reboot ICT education”.

I have witnessed young students staying back after school to learn programming. In eager conversation with a visiting senior educational official, one courageously complained he must wait five years until year 11 before being offered a computer science course.

Not only are we failing to provide for young peoples’ futures by not offering a 21st-century education, we are failing to prepare for our own future as a nation.

David Grover has in the past received funding from Google Australia to conduct workshops for secondary teachers of computing. This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

The Conversation


  1. I think it’s a chicken and egg problem. We don’t have enough teachers and we dont have a good curriculum, but at the same time, uptake for IPT/SDD isn’t exactly high.

    Even if the government did better provide for a new generation of techies, what kind of jobs would they get? The industry is not exactly accommodating towards hiring juniors….

  2. An excellent article. A big part of the problem with student demand is one of engagement – many computing teachers have significant difficulty relating to the general student population, particularly girls. If you want kids to actively engage and study computing, you need to foster interest, and you do not do that by alienating people.

    It’s indicative of a broad problem in technical circles – most technical people are not good communicators. While that’s fine for pure mathematics and traditional scientific disciplines, computing is where the public and very advanced technology unavoidably collide – it is an area that is intertwined in the lives of everyone, yet an area about which most people are enthusiastically ignorant.

    So I agree with the premise – you need to get kids interested in computing from a young age. But to do that you need to find a way to teach people how to be both good communicators capable of genuine engagement with children and technically proficient enough to actually provide a deep level of understanding and appreciation for the subject – no mean feat. And as mentioned, one with absolutely no hope of being met when there is hardly anywhere actually providing training for teachers in this field.

    Is this country TRYING to cripple itself?

  3. Old programmer here (and I emphasise “old”). I remember seeing the numbers of clued-up fresh software people dry up as I was trying to get the numbers up for a team I managed. I was told by a number of interviewees that “nobody wants programmers any more because they’re shipping all the work to India”. Well, true or not, that was the perception.

    What was once a solid, reliable professional path with good rewards in exchange for a tremendous reading load and long hours, suddenly became a commodity that was in a race to the bottom for income. How could you compete with someone from a country with a huge currency advantage?

    As a result, nobody wants to invest in building the incredible amount of expertise needed for a job that (now) pays less than a busy electrician or plumber.

    You pay peanuts, you’re *lucky* to get monkeys.

    • Personally I think that speaks to the quality of projects in this country that such functions can be so easily outsourced to places like that – not many people can actually write good, efficient code. Also hardly surprising that with this trend we are also seeing projects fail and costs blow out – writing code well the first time will cost an order of magnitude less than ongoing inefficiencies, instability and subsequent fixes, something business and government don’t seem to ‘get’ (an outcome that is to everyone’s detriment).

      • > Personally I think that speaks to the quality of projects in this country that such functions can be so easily outsourced to places like that – not many people can actually write good, efficient code.

        I believe it speaks more to cost cutting and to the ability to rotate in and out staff members, regardless of local, outsourced or offshored, than any complexity.

        > Also hardly surprising that with this trend we are also seeing projects fail and costs blow out – writing code well the first time will cost an order of magnitude less than ongoing inefficiencies, instability and subsequent fixes, something business and government don’t seem to ‘get’ (an outcome that is to everyone’s detriment).

        The cost of poor requirements, architecture or design are far higher than the cost of poor code.

        • “The cost of poor requirements, architecture or design are far higher than the cost of poor code.”

          I have so observed that occurring and I suspect that in some ways it comes down to failure to understand the tasks and processes inherent within the operations the system is perceived to be required to perform yet still retain the flexibility for growth and evolution.
          There is that gap in communication between the clients understanding of their needs and aspirations and the ability for the designers and architects to produce the end result of what is actually needed by the clients for now and the the future.
          Too often the key design factors are management and administration sacrificing the actual operational elements then everyone screams because it does not provide the operational efficiencies

      • Indeed. There are many sound economic reasons for having a well-compensated local permanent team of programmers, even if you have to make some compromises to retain them. They’re more productive, as a rule. Much more importantly, their stuff **works**. And working code protects against cost blowouts.

        If you think you can cut diamonds by sending them out to have the facets individually cut by different people, you’re going to get people who claim they have a great background in diamond cutting, have cut many diamonds, are the best value-for-money facet cutters in the game, and will not, in reality, have clue number zero how to approach the task. You will also not get all of your diamonds back.

  4. I’m happy to go on the record about this.

    I’ve not long left a senior role at IT Outsourcer and wanted to get out of the race and into teaching/training – so I’m just finishing my TAE.

    Just before I left I enquired about teaching at secondary school and found out that I would need my Bachelor in Education. No problem I thought, 1 year out of the workforce – no biggy for a career change. So I went to apply and SURPRISE you need at least 2 current (within 7 years) bachelor level qualifications as a primary and secondary teaching subject. 25 years of experience didn’t could apparently. Oh, and that MBA – isn’t really relevant (we then had the “I just spent $30K with you to get this qual, so it better become relevant” conversation – wasn’t pretty). Hmmm…the year off work is starting to look a lot like 3 – that becomes problematic for income.

    So, here is the thing. There are a lot of senior level IT people leaving the industry, a lot want to give something back but 3 years is a long time off work for a career change.

    So, I lamented with a friend over at the DECS (Dept of edu etc) and that the learning pathway for teachers looked a lot like it was geared up for people to roll out of secondary school, into Uni and then get into Teaching on the back of a double Arts degree or two. He said that there was an announcement coming that might make adult pathways easier because the department were faced with an ageing workforce issue, especially with Men leaving within the next few years and needed to think a lot outside of the square to recruit and my issue was a great opportunity as the IT industry is male dominated. (I thought there were some world’s aligning)

    So, two weeks later, the Premier, standing with the unions announces that SA needs to have the best quality teachers in the country, so new teachers will now need a Masters of Education to teach at Middle/Secondary school – so that 3 year career break and full time study is now 4 years minimum for the two teaching subjects and for the Masters of Education – this further bias the pathway to those straight out of school with no life skills or existing living standards and tends to prevent those with the sciences applying because of the extremely high study workload required to get 2 degrees,let alone go on and get the teaching qualification.

    There are a lot of IT pro’s out there who would make excellent teachers – but at 4 years off work full time studying, you aren’t going to get them involved. I have little time when the politics of the day suggest teacher shortages because between the pollies and the unions – you are ignoring those with decent life experience and skills.

    Want to get IT folks (or people with 20 years experience in anything really) into teaching, then this is the issue. Fix the pathway, make it easy for people to RPL based on experience.

  5. I admit that it is important to get students interested in technology in their younger years if they wish to make a career of it, or to attempt to use numbers at high school to build tertiary numbers and therefore graduate numbers.

    However, I do remember that at high school it was more important for me to do the right subjects (maths, physics and chemistry) that both had the best scaling and were required to give me the best opportunity to get into a software engineering degree, rather than take an IT subject which was neither required nor had the best scaling effect on my final score.

    • An excellent point Greg. Prerequisites for uni focus on more generalist subjects, and students who want flexible career options also need flexible subject choices. You won’t go wrong with high maths, physics and chem scores, but you could easily box yourself in choosing more specialist subjects. I remember needing to decide in year 8 what career path I wanted, because year 9 choices feed into 10, 11 and 12 prerequisites which limit your choices of university courses (unless you want to go away and do bridging courses)

      Additionally there are a lot of people in IT who don’t even have IT degrees – they did maths, physics or similar and ended up in IT later.

  6. Going back 15 or so years ago (gasp, it’s been that long!), the standard of equipment, standard of teaching and the course curriculum for Computers & technology were so horrible that I’m glad to see the curriculum has been addressed.

    I was taught about punch cards for crying out loud, when 286 and 386 were coming out and there was this nifty OS called Windows 3.1.

    That does leave equipment and teaching though; teaching robotics, programming, AI, touch screens, etc all requires equipment and some sort of standardisation across the board to make it work. Kids got laptops a couple of years ago – is that still a current ‘thing’?

    Added to that are the lack of teaching/cross training requirements that the author of this article laments.

  7. I can already see what is happening in IT, and I can confidently say in 10-15 years at the most I won’t have a job in IT, and that is being generous. IT as a field as it exists today, will not exist in even remotely the same form, if it is there at all.

    I would and have advised my kids that IT is not a career path for them, as it won’t be there by the time they finish up even high school.

    I’d advise Youngpeople to start to look at robotics, nano tech, DNA Engineering, AI.

    The problem is 15 years ago IT became a craze, with a whole bunch of ill equipped and ill skilled people drawn into it for the good wages, but zero skill levels. This not only diluted the field of Good IT people but commoditized the area and massively dropped real world wages. Then we had major outsourcing to 3rd world countries and it again killed wages and skills, and the sad thing is, people began to accept worse outcomes and poorer code/support and timeframes for solutions blew way out because there were slim to no local hands on people.

    And now we have the beginning of “Cloud”, which will see even bigger waiting times and even poorer service because your removing the local faces and people and making it the corporate entities running the program are near to impossible to contact other then some contact us web form.

    The sad truth of the matter is Malcolm Turnbulls MTM has probably added an extra 5 years onto my employability, by slowing down net access and making it so that cloud computing can’t really take hold until net speeds REALLY pickup, I’ve now got a few extra years of employment.

  8. I think the brain drain is really being felt already, I currently work on a very large Oracle financials project and due to the lack of qualified and experienced Oracle staff, several of the larger vendors have imported very large numbers of Indian staff on 457 visa’s (close to 60% of the staff from my experience).

    It’s pretty disappointing that companies have to resort to this to get the job done.

    I know for a fact I’ll be encouraging my two children to avoid ICT like the plague, it jst isnt taken seriously and valued appropriately in Australian businesses, I’ll be encouraging them to pursue some thing that cant be so easily off-shored like High Tech Engineering or Medicine.

    • I’ve fixed this for you:
      “due to the Profit and Greed of the corporation, several of the larger vendors have imported very large numbers of Indian staff on 457 visa’s (close to 60% of the staff from my experience)”

      • You may be correct to a certain degree, however I do know for certain good Oracle Technical staff are in short supply in Australia. This certainly could be corrected if companies took a longer view and invested in Uni and TAFE Graduates.

  9. The lack of teachers is one problem. I think the bigger problem is the attitude that Australians have towards IT and Computer Science generally. Social stereotypes rub off on kids very quickly, and given that IT/CS is still considered very “nerdy” and highly unglamorous I’m not surprised so many kids are shunning the profession throughout school and university.

  10. I work for a large MSP currently. If I had kids I would tell them not to have an IT career. Unless you get into a niche there is almost no room for it in Australia if you want to make money.

    I have seen people at work train their replacements in the office and then made redundant to save money due to conversion rates.

    It is currently a very sad industry the way it is going.

  11. I currently teach IT at a primary school in Victoria. I’m a specialist IT teacher, so just IT. Finding a job teaching purely IT was extremely difficult at a primary school level. Most primary schools will lump all the IT subjects in with the generalist teacher. They will hire Art, Music and Sport teachers, but won’t fork out the extra money for an IT teacher. Principals figure they can save money and the classroom teacher can add it to their work load. Most primary school teachers don’t have the time to keep up with IT (why I stopped being a generalist primary teacher) or the skills to adequately teach IT (especially the older teachers).

    Finding a job teaching IT at a primary level is extremely difficult, yet most schools are pushing iPads, tablets, Netbooks and all sorts of technology, but have no person to really run or helm those projects at those schools. Part time positions can sometimes be manageable, but not if you expect to work 5 days a week. If schools starting at the primary level don’t support or encourage IT with well trained staff, then there really is no hope to trickle up to High school and beyond.

  12. Why would anybody want to work in IT when everybody expects you to know all the answers and treats you like a problem solving monkey person in a box?

    Workplace bullying laws are irrelevant when you’re IT, people get away with shitting on us all the time, and they fucking well know it too.

    Not to mention the fact that a lot of IT companies are totally shameless, willing to even trick you into training a replacement who is paid only a small quantity of your own wage, there’s no trust, no unions and an every man for himself mentality.

    Being a teacher isn’t much better, kids these days are like kids of every generation, self-entitled, bratty, ignorant and arrogant beyond belief, be it verbal abuse or even up to cases of minor physical assault, why would anybody sacrifice their relative sanity at the altar of classrooms full of entitled little shits?

    And let’s face it, the current government and the nation’s general attitude is anti-intellectual, smart people are prey for conservatives and idiots and the relentless horde of bogans.

    So when people say there’s a brain drain happening, I say, No shit, Sherlock.

    Something has to change, or things will just continue at the same mediocre level of development as it’s always been at.

  13. Over the last ten years I have worked hard on getting young people into tertiary IT education and subsequently into IT jobs. I sit on several University advisory boards (where we have made improvements to curriculum) and I have over time created more than 200 new jobs for graduates. I also set up a nation wide process to recruit them. So based on a decade’s experience here are some of my personal views on this topic. I am guessing everyone won’t agree.

    Empirical research conducted a few years ago in QLD and then supported by evidence in VIC showed quite clearly that poor quality IT teaching in high schools was turning kids off enrolling in tertiary IT studies.

    In fact, our research indicated more students would take up tertiary IT courses if we STOPPED teaching IT at high school. That’s how bad it is!

    So what’s wrong? We have two issues: delivery quality and content. I agree we just don’t have qualified teachers. But the main issue is poor content. It is narrow and limited. And based on the above paper, NSW for all the positives looks to be no different.

    So what was wrong with the content?

    A key problem with the content is the breath. It assumes that IT is only Computer Science. Computer Science, multimedia and robotics might be fun and interesting for some students but it is dead boring and impossibly difficult for others. It’s engineering at the heart of it and like other engineering disciplines it also has a bias against attracting girls. This is one of many ways, high school IT teaching ensures girls just don’t enroll in tertiary IT subjects – girls enrolling as first preference IT at some universities is a low as 3%.

    The IT industry is a brilliant place to work because of the breath of disciplines all wound together into a magic ecosystem. We have transformed the world over the last few decades and there is more (much more) to come. But the success has come by integrating a variety of disciplines and valuing the contribution of each.

    So showing school kids the IT industry ONLY through the lens of computer science is selling the industry short – it is selling a one-dimensional industry when it’s not.

    After their exposure to the computer science view of IT, students who have potential in the equally important soft IT skills disciplines just bail on the whole industry. They give up on us before they are introduced to the wealth of other options in an IT career. We lose thousands of them every year.

    Rather than make high school kids expert at computer science, wouldn’t it be better to showcase the IT industry in years 11 and 12. Why not show them the range of great jobs that exist. And explain the key role IT has played transforming society. And maybe just maybe get them thinking on what other great things we can do in the future. But alas we don’t do this. Our over enthusiastic nerdy teachers start most courses with an introduction to algorithms. And on day one it’s goodbye students for a lifetime.

    I do a lecture every year to first year IT students in a major university. There are about 300 in the class. I ask them a simple question, ‘Why do we do IT?’ I’ve done this for years now. And with a sample of more than 4000 students the answers I get are ‘so we can do programming’ or ‘so we can design web sites’.
    Well done high school teachers. This is the level of understand and context these students have after two years of high school IT.

    We need to go look at how economics or accounting are taught at high school. They don’t start with supply and demand graphs. They start off showing how important these disciplines have been to society. We could learn from that.

    So yes there is a big problem here and talking about it is a good thing. But we have to be careful what we think is the right pill for the right symptom. Improving computer science teaching in isolation of a wider review of the entire curriculum will not work.

    • Peter,

      An excellent and insightful post – I don’t know about the rest of you but I found that pretty much every course in school had the life sucked out of it until it was dry, dull and unapproachable. Even camps and excursions were excruciatingly dull. University somehow managed to be dramatically different though, and the odd thing is I’ve spent my life learning about computers, maths, science, economics, finance, sociology, history, psychology, politics, art and culture because I find learning infinitely interesting and enjoyable. For most people though, most subjects seemed so impenetrable at school that they never bother after that.

      So I completely agree, there is a problem with the curriculum across the board, but when you have career bureaucrats setting the curriculum and an industry populated by people who (for the most part) ended up in that profession because it had the lowest aggregate for university entrance, what hope do you really have that there is even scope for improvement, let alone the requisite expertise and vision capable of delivering meaningful improvements? This is a problem that goes to the very core of our social structure – it will take something monumental before anyone even considers changing it.

      BTW maybe it was a typo, but the word you were looking for was ‘breadth’, not breath :-)

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