Computational thinking as the 'new literacy': professional development opportunities

By Associate Professor Katrina Falkner


Children not only need to learn about how digital technology works and how to use it, but also how to create it by understanding the language of computers. Here, we describe our experiences in providing the Computer Science Education Research (CSER) Digital Technologies MOOC – an open, online course designed to support teachers in the new Digital Technologies learning area.

Why is this essential?

A decade ago, Information and Communications Technology (ICT) education generally focused on ICT as a tool, to be understood through the development of digital literacy. Areas such as Computer Science (CS) or Computational Thinking (CT) were typically isolated into senior secondary programs, with a focus on programming and algorithm development, when they were considered at all.

More recently, a drive to include computing in the school curriculum has arisen, proposing that all children should have an opportunity to develop CT skills, and have opportunities to be creators of digital technologies (Gander et al., 2013; The Royal Society, 2012). New curricula introduced in England (Department for Education, 2013), Australia (ACARA, 2012), New Zealand, and the new Association for Computing Machinery CS standards in the United States (Seehorn et al 2011), have identified the need to educate for both digital literacy and CS, and the need to promote both learning areas from the commencement of schooling through to high school, to support the future generation of digital creators and increase international competitiveness.

This is a significant milestone, yet it also raises a number of challenges, including the preparation of teachers and development of resources to support the success of implementation at a national scale.

The CSER Digital Technologies MOOC

In December 2014, the CSER Group at the University of Adelaide, with the support of Google, launched the CSER Digital Technologies MOOC. This open, online course, freely available to teachers and the broader community, was designed primarily to support teachers from Foundation to Year 6 in teaching the new Digital Technologies learning area of the Australian Curriculum. It offered teachers suggestions on how coding can be integrated into their lessons; during the course participants prepared a portfolio of resources and classroom activities for potential use in their own and other classrooms.

In response to existing research findings, the learning and teaching opportunities in the course were designed to be tool-independent, and focused on deep learning (Black et al, 2013, Meerbum-Salant et al, 2011).The course was also designed to reduce teacher workload by providing exemplars of activities that were already integrated with existing knowledge areas in the curriculum (Settle et al, 2012). In preparing the course we drew on and adapted existing lesson ideas from organisations and initiatives such as CS Unplugged and Code.org, and also drew on lesson ideas and approaches from education texts in other learning areas, such as mathematics, science and literacy, and with examples from teaching themes commonly used within Foundation to Year 6.

Being online, the course provided professional development opportunities at a time and in a location that suited the individual. At the same time, we were conscious of the need to develop a sense of community and sustainability in sharing resources. To support this, a significant aspect of our online course structure was the introduction of a Google+ Community. In this community participants shared their ideas for learning activities in response to their weekly assignments.

We have just completed our second offering of the CSER Digital Technologies MOOC. To date, over 3,000 teachers have undertaken the MOOC, with approximately 200 teachers requesting and receiving professional development certification for their participation. Over 1,100 teachers have participated in developing the online community, supporting the discussion of pedagogy and learning activity ideas for Digital Technologies, while also providing an online resource for brainstorming and sparking ideas.

In our discussions with this growing community, several key considerations
have emerged. It has become very clear that, as a new learning area, Digital Technologies is a source of anxiety for many teachers. However, once concepts such as 'algorithms' and 'iteration' are de-mystified, teachers become far more comfortable with the new curriculum. As one teacher said to us, 'nearly all the modules were new in name but as I started to go through the MOOC I realised there was so much that I already did and understood'.

The importance of a sustainable community cannot be emphasised enough in the success of this course. Some teachers have initially felt hesitant to share their ideas, but these fears have soon broken down, and the sharing of ideas has become a great source of motivation and inspiration.

As we worked together through our first offering of the course, it quickly became apparent that those most engaged in course materials were also the ones most strongly supported by their peers in face-to-face contact. It has now become common for teachers to study the course in small groups, and in some cases these groups have been facilitated by schools. More detail on the analysis of our first offering of the course is available elsewhere (Vivian, Falkner & Falkner, 2014).

Where to next?

The CSER Group, with the support of Digital Careers and Google, has launched a second MOOC in support of teachers. The CSER Next Steps MOOC is designed to support teachers of Years 7 and 8, and takes a more project-based approach. The course is divided into several streams that cover a range of contexts, including robotics, mobile app development, maker spaces, data visualisation, and making digital games. The streams are designed to support a range of background experience: some build upon visual programming languages and are well suited to those with little prior experience, while other streams explore general-purpose programming languages.


References

  • ACARA. (2012): The Shape of the Australian Curriculum: Technologies. Sydney, NSW: ACARA, http://www.acara.edu.au/curriculum_1/learning_areas/technologies.html.
  • Black, J., Brodie, J., Curzon, P., Myketiak, C., McOwan, P., & Meagher, L. (2013): Making computing interesting to school students: teachers' perspectives. Proc. ITiCSE, Canterbury, England, 255-260.
  • Department for Education. (2013): The national curriculum in England. Cheshire, UK: Crown.
  • Gander, W., Petit, A., Berry, G., Demo, B., Vahrenhold, J., McGettrick, A., Boyle, R., Drechsler, M., Mendelson, A., Stephenson, C., Ghezzi, C. & Meyer, B. (2013): Informatics education: Europe cannot afford to miss the boat ACM Europe: Informatics Education Report. New York.
  • Meerbaum-Salant, O., Armoni, M., & Ben-Ari, M. (2011): Habits of programming in scratch. Proc. ITiCSE, Germany, 168- 172.
  • The Royal Society. (2012): Shut down or restart? The way forward for computing in UK schools. London.
  • Seehorn, D., Carey, S., Fuschetto, B., Lee, I., Moix, D., O'Grady-Cunniff, D., Boucher Owens, B., Stephenson, C. & Verno, A. (2011): CSTA K- 12 computer science standards. The CSTA Standards Task Force. New York: Computer Science Teachers Association, Association for Computing Machinery.
  • Settle, A., Franke, B., Hansen, R., Spaltro, F., Jurisson, C., Rennert-May, C., & Wildeman, B. (2012): Infusing computational thinking into the middle-and high- school curriculum. Proc. ITiCSE, Haifa, Israel, 22- 27.
  • Vivian, R., Falkner, K., & Falkner, N (2014). Addressing the challenges of a new digital technologies curriculum: MOOCs as a scalable solution for teacher professional development. Research in Learning Technology, [S.l.], v. 22, Aug. 2014. ISSN 2156-7077. Available at: http://www.researchinlearningtechnology.net/index.php/rlt/article/view/24691.

Image credit

  • CSER logo. Courtesy of University of Adelaide.

 

Originally published in Curriculum and Leadership Journal Volume 13 Issue 9, 22 May 2015. Republished with permission.

Associate Professor Katrina Falkner

Head of School

School of Computer Science, The University of Adelaide