Phil Staley: Children sure seem to know how to send a Facebook message, a Snapchat message or a tweet, don’t they? But it seems that’s not translating into actual computer literacy skills. Data out this week says over half of year six and year 10 students don’t have a basic standard of computer literacy. The Federal Education Minister, Senator Simon Birmingham, can you explain why this is the case. 

Mr Birmingham, good morning. Are these numbers concerning to you?

Simon Birmingham: Well good morning Phil and listeners. Yes, we do have these new statistics which are somewhat concerning, that they try to assess the national assessment performance in relation to computer usage and information technology understanding by children. And it shows that in year six and in year 10 we seem to have had a decline in recent years in terms of the performance of students and their specific knowledge around how to functionally use computers and information technology. And that’s a real concern, and it suggests that whilst computers, and IT, and laptops, and iPads, and iPhones, and all of the different types of devices available nowadays, might be becoming much, much more prevalent and accessible to children, that their functional usage in terms of work skills and other skills they might need on those computers seems to have slipped backwards a bit.

Phil Staley: What would you put it down to, do you think? Is it the fact that, you know, we’re talking about a technology that upgrades itself weekly, monthly, it’s so fast, could it be that or is there more to this?

Simon Birmingham: I think the concerns are probably that whilst kids are getting more access to these hardware devices, the type of things they’re doing on them becomes more about social media interaction, and gaming, and things that may teach certain skills but aren’t necessarily taking them through to the type of skills that are being measured here, which are more about how you might use these types of tools in the workplace. So the functional literacy in terms of engaging with computers to be able to apply the skills to a work environment, and that’s really a concern. Now, some of that might be just more time being spent on things that aren’t quite as practical in their output and don’t provide the same learning outcomes, some of it may be the rapid change in technology [indistinct] us to make sure that teachers and schools have the support to be able to keep up with those changes in technology as to the teaching practices and styles. And so the Government, we are investing more federally to help with things like computer coding across schools and to make sure that those very practical skills are actually passed on in the classroom.

Phil Staley: Simon Birmingham my guest. Mr Birmingham, we don’t have statistics to say this definitively but is it a fair assumption to say that the further you get from those metropolitan centres these percentages of students who don’t know how to use computers would be increasing?

Simon Birmingham: Well, I think that’s probably a reasonable summation just that due to access to technology, in some regional and rural and especially remote settings, there can be difficulties. And we’re certainly looking to make sure that through the roll out of the National Broadband Network, and particularly the recent launch of the new satellite, that we help those remote areas. Australia now does have pretty good access across most of the country for the type of connectivity that’s required for basic skills to be taught, but of course the exposure to technology may not be as great in some of those regional settings, and that’s something that we are firmly attuned to as a Government, which is why we want to make sure that remote and rural areas are prioritised in terms of the rollout of internet connectivity in the future.

Phil Staley: Minister Birmingham, the bigger picture here though, I’m sure you’ll agree, is this is a generational shift. I mean, dare I ask you how old you were when you learnt to use a computer – I bet you were older than whatever it was you were in year six.

Simon Birmingham: Oh indeed. The idea that anybody was trying to measure how many kids knew how to use computers in year six back when I was there is laughable. It was something that you had very rare and occasional access to in the school, but of course times change and we have updated the national curriculum and applied a national curriculum that will commence properly from next year across all states and all different types of schooling. And under that national curriculum the use of digital technologies is externally spelled out, and really what I hope we will see is a good strong effort by state governments and by the independent and Catholic school sectors to make sure that they make the most use of that national curriculum. To build it across the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics subjects, the so-called STEM subjects, where we really are trying to focus a lot more of our investment, and which will also be part of the focus of Malcolm Turnbull’s upcoming innovation statement, to really take to another level our support, and investment, and activity in trying to encourage the use and learning of STEM subjects across both school and post-school learning.

Phil Staley: Do you think some of our listeners, perhaps older listeners who have got grandchildren would be – well, uncomfortable to hear that their year six grandchild should know how to use a computer? That’s at the age of about ten.

Simon Birmingham: Look, they shouldn’t know how to use a computer at the expense of basic literacy, numeracy and the other things that we expect kids to learn in school, but they should be learning absolutely by that stage functional things about computer usage. I’m a parent of young children nowadays, and one of the great challenges in the house is how you make sure that your use of devices, computers, phones and so on doesn’t become such a draw card that the kids are forever picking them up as well.

And so what you want to make sure is if the kids are engaging in those technologies, and many, many children across the country are, that they’re getting some practical skills out of that engagement as well, and skills that will stand them well in the workplace. The whole approach of the national curriculum that our Government finalised this year, and will roll out from next year, involves making sure that the basics around literacy and the teaching of phonics and the way that phonics are taught in schools should help to lift reading standards and literacy levels as well as numeracy investment across schools. 

So it’s by no means saying that schools should be elevating information technology and computers at the expense of the basics, but that we do need to do all of those different things nowadays.

Phil Staley: It is a balance, isn’t it, because you want them to have good computer literacy, but you also want them to put the computer down and go outside and play cricket.

Simon Birmingham: Absolutely, and I think getting parents to make sure that they have firm rules about when and where computers can be used, make sure they’re safe environments which they are used is really important. It’s just like – with small children, it’s just like having to say no junk food, you’ve also got to say no to picking up the iPad or the iPhone. They pick up how to use it fairly quickly in terms of the things they want to do – what you’ve got to do is of course make sure that when they are using it, you’re steering them on to the educational aspect of it and getting them to actually learn from that engagement. There are some wonderful apps, including developed by the ABC that help with reading and counting and so on at a young age, which I’d encourage many parents to take a look at and use. But you still want to make sure that your kids are getting enough physical exercise and all of the other things that come with a healthy childhood.

Phil Staley: Final question Mr Birmingham – what’s a good result here? You’ve got new curriculum for digital technologies on the way as you’ve mentioned, so in a year, two years, four years’ time, what sort of percentage would you like to see?

Simon Birmingham: Well I certainly hope that the 50 per cent standard for proficiency in year six that we’re seeing is well and truly lifted in that time. Now how much we need- can lift it over the next couple of years depends on how well the states and the systems pick up on the national curriculum. But I’d hope to see that we can at least get it back to where it was a few years ago when this test was last done, which was closer to the two-thirds level.

Phil Staley: Simon Birmingham, thanks for your time this morning, really appreciate it.

Simon Birmingham: A pleasure Phil.

Senator Birmingham’s media contact: James Murphy 0447 644 957