Primary, secondary and tertiary computing education in Aotearoa New Zealand
Over the years computing education in Aotearoa has experienced a bumpy ride. Public understanding of what there is to learn — how to use computers — neglects the fact that the ability to create new computer-based systems presents students with far more valuable career opportunities. New technologies are mysterious, even arcane, and adults turn to young people to help them out. This promotes the widespread belief that youth are ‘computer savvy’ — yet those same young people rarely comprehend fundamental ideas in computing and, in particular, cannot write programs.
Many computing education champions have worked hard to convey the use vs create difference to our society’s leaders. Yet educational decision makers have needed continual reminders to stop focusing solely on developing students’ skill in using existing software, and that providing internet access and hardware might be necessary, but it is not sufficient.
The discipline that concerns the creation of software is generally referred to as ‘computer science’. Though built on the necessary skill of programming, it is fundamentally concerned with manaakitanga towards the audience for whom the programs are written: upholding the mana of users by designing comfortable interfaces, seeking fast algorithms that respond at the speed of human interaction, storing information in ways that faithfully reflect reality, providing security in order to maintain privacy, and so on. These aspects are often collectively referred to simply as ‘Computing’, but ‘Computational Thinking’ is perhaps more appropriate and is gaining hold internationally (Curzon et al 2019). Universities in Aotearoa and overseas generally adopt the term ‘computer science’, along with closely related areas of tertiary study referred to as ‘software engineering’, ‘information systems’, ‘information and communication technologies’, and the like.
It goes without saying that students — all students — should be educated and supported in the competent use of digital devices, and this occurs at all levels of education. However, stopping there misses the crucial point that one particular activity opens up infinite possibilities: programming.
Programming tools are distinct from office productivity tools and the like because they are used to create new software. This is a qualitative difference, and skill in software development opens up vastly more possibilities for students. Unfortunately the history of computing education here and elsewhere has been largely concerned with enabling those running the education system to comprehend this difference.
Of course, the forces that shape computing education in Aotearoa reflect international developments in computers and the internet. But the rise of computing education is also a story of people who went far beyond the call of duty by championing a vision, a vision that rather than becoming a remote nation of cargo cultish users of new technology, New Zealand should lead the world in innovation. We are blessed with an ideal environment to grow technology as a major export.
This brief chapter focuses on pivotal events and key actors. Unfortunately we cannot cover all the activities and people involved, nor recognize the many brave teachers who have adopted new curriculum content despite the New Zealand education system’s resource-constrained environment. We begin by describing developments in the tertiary sector and move on to the growth of computer usage in schools, and the tortuous path to the New Zealand curriculum including computer science.
Figure 1 shows a timeline of some of the key events in the story of computing education in New Zealand.
The first computers in New Zealand were commissioned during the 1960s, including two IBM 1620 computers that were installed at the University of Canterbury and the University of Auckland in 1962 and 1963 respectively. However, university computers were generally housed in specialist ‘computer centres’, and any courses in computing were generally taught by the computer centre or other departments such as mathematics.
The first formal full-year, full-time tertiary course in computing was at Auckland Technical Institute (ATI) in 1967, created to meet industry demand; it taught programming in languages such as Fortran, RPG, and COBOL, as well as supporting subjects such as mathematics and statistics, accounting, and communication skills. Access to computers was achieved by sending decks of cards to a local company, to be processed overnight.
By 1972 (when a bulk deal resulted in all New Zealand universities buying Burroughs B6700 computers), all universities were doing some teaching in computing, still typically in the computer centre or a mathematics department (James & Lousberg 2010). For example, Otago provided computing courses in computer science through its computer centre, of which Brian Cox was director. In Auckland, a Computer Science Department was evolving from its Mathematics Department, with John Butcher as head of department, although it didn’t eventuate until 1980. At Victoria University, there was a Department of Information Science under Tony Vignaux, who was an operations researcher. In 1973 the first formal university computer science programs appeared. Computer science departments were established at the University of Canterbury (Prof John Penny) and Massey University (Prof Graham Tate). Massey’s Computer Science Department included their computer centre, in contrast to other universities where the computer centre independently provided services to other departments, recognising how expensive this resource was.
In the 1970s and early 1980s university staff and students would need to queue for access to computing (typically by booking a time, submitting punch card decks, or physically queuing up for a terminal). During this period the university might have just a few computers, and their time was considerably more valuable than that of the users. The situation flipped around the turn of the century, and now many staff and students have multiple digital devices (typically mobile phones, laptops, desktop computers, maybe even a tablet). Devices now have to wait until their user has a time slot available! University computer centres gradually evolved into general IT support services, including internet access for all the devices a user might have. Over the years teaching departments evolved that offered degrees including information systems, software engineering and computer engineering, although all eight universities still have a department that teaches computer science.
By 1986 universities had a crude email service available — at Canterbury this involved a modem dialling up to Canada twice a day. This was a vast improvement on previous communications by mail, and when a more reliable internet service came about in 1989 through servers at Waikato University, New Zealand was able to enjoy a stronger connection to developments overseas.
In 1988 the polytechnics introduced the Certificate in Business Computing (CBC) through the newly-formed National Advisory Committee on Computing Qualification (NACCQ), to replace the rapidly dating New Zealand Certificate in Data Processing (NZCDP). The Certificate in Business Computing was a one-year full-time course available on a national basis, and was competency based: a student either met the standard or not. The National Advisory Committee was formed to ensure that the qualification could be responsive to changes in industry. It was referred to as the ‘Blue book’, a colour chosen for reasons of economy by the printer, who happened to have a surplus of blue cardboard available. The Certificate in Business Computing was soon augmented by a two-year Advanced Certificate in Business Computing. Eventually these qualifications became the current Level 5 and 6 diplomas respectively, and were extended to offer a three-year National Diploma in Business Computing.
In the early 1990s polytechnics were allowed to offer degrees, and the first such computing degree, a Bachelor of IT, was offered at Wintec (Waikato) in 1990; this degree was then franchised to six other polytechnics.
During the early days of computer science in universities, Fortran and Pascal were popular languages for introducing students to programming, although Algol was also prominent thanks to the widespread use of Burroughs computers. Of course, a range of other languages were also taught, and the growing access to the internet hastened their adoption. After Java appeared in 1995, it became widely adopted by New Zealand universities, although more recently Python has become at least as common in Australasia, even though Java has remained dominant in the UK, for example (Simon et al 2018). Most departments teach students multiple languages and multiple styles of programming, but the choice of the first language is of interest because it is typically a student’s introduction to formal computer science courses. Beyond the first course, which only accounts for 5–10% of a degree, universities generally follow the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) computing curriculum recommendations, which provide a standard informed by international industry.
Adapted from cra.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/05/2019-Taulbee-Survey.pdf, Figure B1
Computer science (and related) departments have seen wild fluctuations in enrolments over the years. In the year 2000, the bursting of the dot-com bubble, combined with threats to outsource software development to other countries, led to much negative press concerning the availability of jobs in the software industry internationally. United States universities saw enrolments in computer science plummet (see 2004 to 2007 in Figure 2), and this was also reflected in New Zealand.
Paradoxically, the period immediately following saw the rapid growth of internet companies, including Google, Trade Me, Wikipedia, Amazon, YouTube and Facebook, who needed to employ thousands of computer scientists. In 2007 the number of graduates was still decreasing rapidly — approaching half the number available just five years earlier — and the view in 2007 can be seen in the plunging numbers on the left of Figure 2. This strong downward trend was worrying for industry. At the same time, universities were at risk of having to shed staff because enrolments had dropped to half what they were a few years earlier, although in many cases sufficient staff hadn’t been provided for the peak, so the decrease was a welcome relief. It did cause problems a few years later as numbers rose again, due to having fewer graduates from previous years coming through as teaching staff, and industry was absorbing large numbers of qualified people — eating our own seed corn, as one US report put it.
This stimulated industry to consider supporting universities to grow numbers. New Zealand saw a variety of initiatives, including innovative company recruitment strategies, and regular visits from Google Australia (whose Sydney office is the closest to New Zealand and employs a significant number of New Zealand graduates), as well as initiatives to support high schools to encourage students into the field.
In 2014, the government allocated $28.6m to address the talent shortage by setting up three graduate schools (Auckland, Wellington and the South Island). These schools took in graduates from non-computing subjects, and used a combination of teaching and internships to prepare students for computing careers. This funding finished in 2020.
There has generally been cooperation between university computer science departments, as they have faced similar issues over the years. When they were being established in the 1970s they had an annual get-together to discuss what they were doing, and were encouraged to set up a system of outside assessment, where people from one department would review the work of another. After a while the regular meetings faded due to workloads and lack of funding. To address this gap, Ian Witten (a newly arrived professor at Waikato University), inaugurated the Computer Science Association of New Zealand to help departments share information, including through a regular newsletter. The newsletter faded after Ian retired, but annual meetings between the heads of departments continue. Another initiative that Ian Witten founded to increase communication between postgraduates who might feel isolated in their universities was the New Zealand Computer Science Research Student Conference (NZCSRSC), which was held from 1992 to 2013. Over those two decades the conferences provided excellent camaraderie and connection-building for a diverse range of computer science post-graduate students, many of whom were introduced to marae-style living at the events!
Other connections between New Zealand computing academics, particularly for Institutes of Technology and Polytechnics (ITPs), have occurred through Computing and Information Technology Research and Education New Zealand (CITRENZ) and NACCQ, which have provided national conferences and a journal that provided a peer-reviewed forum for local academic work.
1970s to 1990s: computers arrive in schools
The first use of a computer in New Zealand is likely to be an ICT 1201 that arrived at the Department of Education in 1959, although it was for the purpose of calculating payrolls rather than directly engaging young minds (Carpenter 2020).
From 1974–85 programming could be taught in schools as part of the applied maths curriculum, based around topics such as numerical methods, although finding computers that students could program was a challenge, and there was no national initiative around computers in schools until the end of the 20th century.
In the late ’70s, the arrival of affordable personal computers (particularly the 1977 ‘trinity’ of the Apple ][, Commodore PET and TRS-80), opened up some possibilities if schools could afford them, but the greatest impact of these kinds of machines is likely to be the rise of self-taught hobbyists (Swalwell 2010). These early personal computers generally opened with a prompt for program code to be entered, usually in the BASIC programming language, and so computer owners automatically became computer programmers.
More general access to computers for schools was achieved by having students write programs and send them out to a university or large organisation, where they would be loaded and run, and the results sent back to the school. This could lead to a week elapsing between writing a program and seeing the result, which meant that students quickly learnt to thoroughly check their programs for both syntax and semantic errors (‘desk checking’ was a given); there is evidence that such delays lead to better programming skills, and it certainly avoids the commonly observed modern approach of ‘programming by permutation’ where a short edit-compile-run cycle can tempt students to hope that random changes to their program will fix a bug.
As an aside, the author’s own memories of computing in the 1970s are as a student at Nelson College, which had a teletypewriter connected to a nondescript box that had to be bootstrapped with hand-entered code, and which would then load a BASIC interpreter from paper tape. Students would queue up to use it at lunchtime. Later a game-changing interface was purchased to read mark-sense cards, so that multiple students could write programs, and then manually shoot them through a slot in the card reader, rather than typing them in. My own education was expanded by being allowed to spend Saturday mornings in a local blood testing lab; the owner had purchased an eight-colour personal computer of some sort, and needed a program written to process data, which a small group of us gladly did in exchange for access to the machine; the smell of a medical lab still brings back memories of learning to program.
New Zealand almost had its own school computer when Progeni initiated a project to develop the ‘Poly’ computer in 1981, designed specifically for the school environment, with input from dozens of teachers. (Andrew Trotman has an extensive project that captures detailed information about the Poly.) Unfortunately the efforts to introduce it were frustrated by political decisions (Harpham 2010).
As computers became more accessible to schools during the 1980s, and graphical user interfaces (GUI) became prevalent through the Macintosh and Windows, the visibility of programming waned and the computer became something that students learnt to use (e.g. productivity software such as word processing replacing traditional typewriter courses), or it was used as a tool to teach other subjects (e-learning). The user was protected more and more from the details of how computers work, and this served to ‘inoculate’ them from learning deeper concepts, in particular, programming — it was easy for decision makers to mistake computer access and experience using a range of software for learning how to create new software.
Concerns were repeatedly raised, including the Sallis Report (Sallis et al 1990) and Nightingale and Chamberlain’s, ‘A Study of Computers in New Zealand Schools’ (Nightingale & Chamberlain 1991), but these reports weren’t actioned, and schools were left to be guided by enthusiastic teachers and aggressive vendors to introduce information and communications technology (ICT) to their schools (Falloon 2020). From 1989 to 2013 a specialist journal, Computers in New Zealand schools, was published by the University of Otago Centre for Distance Education & Learning Technologies. Articles in the journal reflect the challenges being faced introducing computers into schools.
In 1995 the Ministry of Education revised the New Zealand Curriculum, which by 1999 resulted in a new compulsory learning area called ‘technology’, defined as ‘intervention by design’. The curriculum explained that ‘Technological areas include structural, control, food, and information and communications technology and biotechnology. Relevant contexts can be as varied as computer game software, food products, worm farming, security systems, costumes and stage props, signage and taonga.’ Despite ICT being explicit in the curriculum, concerns were raised that schools weren’t taking the topic seriously, and ‘technology’ could be covered using contexts other than ICT (Savidan 2003).
At this time, the use of computers was largely seen as a vocational subject based on using productivity tools such as word processors and spreadsheets. Computing qualifications available to students were around unit standards, pass-fail standards with titles like ‘Produce simple desktop published documents using templates’ ‘Produce a spreadsheet from instructions using supplied data’, and ‘Find information using the Internet.’ Some programming unit standards were available, but these were generally unattractive to students aspiring to tertiary study (Bell, Andreae & Robins 2014).
2000–10: the great debate: what to teach?
The beginning of the 21st century brought the internet into many people’s homes (through phone lines), raising public awareness of the technology. About the same time, the dot-com bubble burst, casting a dark shadow over employment prospects in the computer industry. Nevertheless, demand for software developers was rising significantly internationally. The irony was that just as computing and internet services became ubiquitous (e.g. ‘Googling’, Amazon, Wikipedia, YouTube, Facebook), few people recognized the need to prepare students for opportunities in this burgeoning industry. ICT courses in schools focused on using the new tools, a laudable aim for all students, but woefully inadequate as a basis for a career in the computing industry. Those of us who were teaching in universities were dismayed to meet incoming students eager to embark on computer science degrees who assumed they were destined to learn more and more advanced features of Microsoft Word, whereas, in truth, computer science is more about conceptualising, designing, and implementing successors to applications like Microsoft Word — a completely different activity.
Strenuous efforts were made to equip schools with new technology to support learning: the School Network Upgrade Project (SNUP), the expansion of Te Kete Ipurangi (TKI), free access to the Microsoft suite of applications for students and teachers, and subsidised laptops for teachers (Falloon 2020). However, these initiatives were intended to enhance education across the board: computer science was not recognized as a subject in its own right. The 2005 Fluency in IT (FITNZ) project made some progress towards promulgating a deeper understanding of computing per se (Clear & Bidois 2005), but its proposals did not map easily onto the new Technology learning area, and were hard for schools to adopt.
2007 saw a significant revision to the Technology learning area. However, the prescribed assessment was generic, designed to work for subjects ranging from food technology to digital technology, and the focus on physical outcomes — material products such as meals — did not augur well for software development.
The 2007 Digital Technologies Guidelines (DTG), which grew out of the ‘Fluency in IT’ project, finally recognized the unique nature of digital technologies. These guidelines segmented the area into seven strands: electronics & controls, programming & software, digital information, digital media, digital infrastructure, digital society, and digital concepts & tools. They were piloted in several schools, but teachers, industry and tertiary institutions raised concerns because of a mismatch with the generic assessment standards.
In April 2008 the New Zealand Computer Society (now the ITP) produced a pivotal report, authored by Grimsey and Phillipps, that highlighted the problem. It examined the relevance of the technology assessment for students on a pathway towards computer science, and to those who would become general computer users. It found that the terminology, which was based around manipulating physical materials, was inappropriate for software. For example, an emphasis on ‘batch production’ of the product made no sense for apps that could be ‘mass produced’ by simply delivering them online. The report panned the Digital Technology Guidelines for being ‘like painting over flaking paintwork adhering to rotten timber … the result is destined to be disappointing, ineffective, and short-lived,’ a particularly colourful metaphor.
Around the same time, the Post-Primary Teachers’ Association (PPTA) raised concerns about the implications of the Digital Technologies Guidelines for teachers, including workload, unrealistic timelines, and lack of relevance of the associated resources. An August 2008 report commissioned by the Ministry of Education, authored by Carrell, Gough-Jones and Fahy, raised the ‘disparity between graduate numbers from tertiary education and the employment needs of industry,’ and bemoaned the ‘lack of teacher confidence because the subject Computing is perceived to be second rate, is uncoordinated, under resourced, unsupported, lacking in a professional body, and in dire straits.’ It recommended achievement standards specific to computing, as well as investment in teachers, and highlighted the need for a national subject association for the area (Carrell, Gough-Jones & Fahy 2008).
As a result the Ministry of Education formed the Digital Technologies Experts Panel (DTEP) in November 2008, with representatives from industry (including the New Zealand Computer Society) and tertiary and school teachers. By mid-2009 the panel had developed concrete proposals for assessment, particularly around topics relevant to programming and computer science, most of which were accepted by the Ministry of Education. One contentious issue was whether the subject of computing should remain within the technology learning area — whereas in England, for example, it was designated as an area of its own. Despite the panel’s recommendation that ‘in the longer term … ICT [should] become a Learning Area of the New Zealand Curriculum,’ the new achievement standards brought about by the change remained under the technology umbrella, although as a sub-area called ‘digital technologies.’ Achievement standards for NCEA were implemented and released in time for use in the 2011 school year. The focus of these changes was the last three years of schooling, this being where most concerns had been raised. In the first year it was offered, 2213 students passed the new programming standard at Level 1 (year 11).
Little support was provided for teachers to adopt the new achievement standards, but by this time many companies had become concerned to increase interest in computing education, and began to sponsor universities to support teachers. This was driven not only by the need to grow the talent pool for industry (see Figure 2), but also to address the industry’s lack of diversity. Stereotypes of who could work in the computer industry had become self-fulfilling, and software developers failed to represent the variety of potential users and their needs. As noted earlier, software development is essentially manaakitanga. It involves excellent communication and close teamwork; the lone, nerdy, stereotype (such as the character portrayed in Dilbert cartoons), is singularly unhelpful. Education can remove blinkers from the eyes of potential students and allow them to see themselves in this industry, rather than relying on misleading stereotypes.
To address the issue it is not enough to merely insert computing into the curriculum. The subject needs to be presented in a way that students can relate to. Recognition of this has prompted a strongly bicultural approach to the introduction of digital technology in schools.
2010–2020: a curriculum emerges
A key initiative that had started in the United States was the CS4HS conference (Computer Science for High Schools), where Google paid teachers to receive professional development at universities. The first was at Carnegie-Mellon University in 2006, and based on its success the conference expanded internationally over the next few years (Blum & Cortina 2007). Google’s funding became available in Australasia in 2011, just as universities were seeking ways to support the new standards. New Zealand CS4HS events were pioneered by the University of Canterbury and Victoria University of Wellington at the end of 2011, and over the next few years were offered by other tertiary institutes, including Unitec and AUT. Other support included the University of Canterbury’s ‘Computer Science Field Guide’ to provide content to support the new computer science standards, the ‘Code Avengers’ teaching site established by a Waikato postgraduate student, a set of four programming textbooks from the University of Otago, and ‘STEM Online NZ’ from the University of Auckland, which offers online lessons to match particular Digital Technologies topics.
The changes triggered the formation of a subject association in 2009, initially with the inclusive but difficult-to-remember name New Zealand Association for Computing, Digital and Information Technology Teachers (NZACDITT) but now called Digital Technologies Teachers Aotearoa (DTTA). It participated in the development of standards, lobbied for support, and established a lively email list for teachers to support each other and exchange resources. Presidents of the association include many champions of the change in schools: Vilna Gough-Jones, Karen Fahy, John Creighton, Julie McMahon, Gerard McManus and Chris Dillon.
These activities were aimed at senior high school students, but even prior to the formal introduction of digital technologies as a school subject a range of organisations — mainly charitable trusts — stepped in to fill the gap for children who were missing out. Robotics clubs, organisations and competitions (McAven 2010) have run in this country for many years, including Robocup Junior NZ, dating from 2003, Vex Robotics (run by Kiwibots) since 2008, and FIRST Lego League, running in New Zealand since 2009 — originally by The Kiwi First Robotics Charitable Trust and more recently by the FIRST New Zealand Education Trust. In 2007 Manaiakalani was founded in Tamaki with goals that included ‘engaging students in the use of technologies,’ and continues as an active force in education, also offering Professional Learning and Development courses for teachers. Code Club Aotearoa started in Christchurch in 2014, aiming to provide students with opportunities to learn coding, typically in groups run by industry volunteers, in and out of schools. Today there are hundreds of clubs all around the country, along with related initiatives such as She Can Code (a ‘celebration of girls and women coding in Aotearoa’), The Electric Garden (supporting digital learning through gardening), Code Club 4 Teachers (hands-on workshops to help teachers with the Digital Technologies curriculum) and Recycle A Device (refurbishing donated devices) — all of which now fall under the banner of Digital Futures Aotearoa. The OMGtech organisation run by the Pam Fergusson Charitable Trust, also established in 2014, offers workshops for primary and intermediate school students ‘to be inspired and learn how to use future technology’; it now also runs courses for teachers. The Programming Challenge for Girls (PC4G), an initiative organised by Margot Phillips, engages year ten girls in a one-day programming workshop at a university. Organisations like these provide opportunities for students of all ages, for whom little was available in schools.
How should schools best prepare students for the new NCEA Digital Technologies learning area in a more systematic way? In 2014 the government announced a project called ‘A Nation of Curious Minds — He Whenua Hihiri i te Mahara’, which sought to support the development of ‘more science and technology-competent learners, and more choosing science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) related career pathways.’ It included a focus on Digital Technologies, and a series of meetings were held that led to several proposals being put forward. In July 2016, the Minister of Education, Hekia Parata, announced that, ‘Digital Technologies | Hangarau Matihiko will form part of the Technology Learning Area of The New Zealand Curriculum and the Hangarau Wāhanga Ako of Te Marautanga o Aotearoa from Year 1 through to Year 13,’ with the curriculum to be derived from a proposal based on research by Caitlin Duncan, who had been trialling curriculum content in primary schools, as well as following overseas curriculum developments (Duncan & Bell 2015). The technology learning area, published as an addendum to the New Zealand curriculum, was revised to include five ‘technological areas’, the last two of which are grouped as ‘digital technologies’:
- Designing and developing material outcomes
- Designing and developing processed outcomes
- Design and visual communication
- Designing and developing digital outcomes (DDDO)
- Computational thinking for digital technologies (CTDT)
‘Computational thinking for digital technologies’ was a striking new component, and included age-appropriate programming and other ideas from computer science, such as human-computer interaction and data representation. The new content was published in time for use in 2018, and ‘in term 1 2020, it will be expected that schools will be teaching the new content’.* Teachers had no experience of this content in their own schooling, and required extensive support to fulfil this expectation. This included that time-worn challenge: how to communicate to school management that it isn’t just about becoming computer users.
A variety of mechanisms were announced to support delivery of the ambitious new curriculum content. In June 2017 the new Minister of Education, Nikki Kaye, announced a $40 million funding package to support these initiatives, including:
- additional demand-driven professional learning and development for teachers,
- a national programme to introduce teachers to the new curriculum and provide them with teaching strategies to support their delivery of the new content, which ran from 2018 to 2020 as the ‘Kia Takatū ā-Matihiko | Digital Readiness programme’,
- the national 123Tech challenge run by ITP NZ and other partners, to excite students to innovate using digital technologies
- an equity fund ‘with a focus on ensuring access for young people from disadvantaged backgrounds,’ which resulted in programs run by the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa (Te Papa) and Karrikins Group.
Although the Ministry of Education ‘expected’ all schools to offer the new content by 2020, its introduction was slow. A July 2019 Education Review Office (ERO) report was titled ‘It’s early days for the new Digital Technologies curriculum’ (New Zealand Education Review Office 2021a). It noted that in September 2018, ‘only seven percent [of schools] said their teachers sufficiently understood the Digital Technologies curriculum content and its place in the NZC and had enough knowledge and skills to implement the curriculum content.’ While a January 2020 follow-up report omitted statistics on the adoption rate, it noted the importance of enabling factors such as school leadership engagement, curriculum integration with other learning areas, and professional development.
Preparing schools for the new material was hindered by teachers’ industrial action in 2019 (referred to in the press as a ‘mega-strike’) and the 2020 COVID-19 crisis during which teachers had to work out how to engage students via distance learning. Both events made it challenging to engage teachers with the new content; their focus was more immediate issues.
It’s mid-2021. Many schools embrace the new digital technologies curriculum, but others cannot without more support. Unfortunately it is unclear how this will be achieved, because the Ministry of Education’s 2017 funding package has run its course.
New Zealand first introduced digital technologies as a subject for senior students in 2011, and introduced it to junior levels in 2018. While, on reflection, this may seem backwards, it has had a valuable (if unplanned) outcome. The Digital Technologies Teachers Aotearoa (DTTA) association was established in response to the 2011 change, and by the time primary school teachers became involved specialist high school teachers, already experienced in teaching the subject, could provide expertise and support.
Through all of these changes, New Zealand has had a strong international presence that connects local to overseas initiatives. Examples include Alison Clear (EIT), whose activity in global computer science education initiatives was recognised in 2020 with a SIGCSE Lifetime Service Award. Anthony Robins’ (University of Otago) numerous international contributions include co-editing the landmark Cambridge Handbook of Computing Education Research. Margot Phillipps, whose Programming Challenge for Girls was mentioned earlier, has organised New Zealand’s participation in the international Olympiad in Informatics (IOI) programming competition since 2007, and runs the New Zealand’s ‘Bebras’ competition, as well as many other initiatives that have engaged students around the country. The author is known internationally for his pioneering Computer Science Unplugged project, established in 1999, which is widely used around the world, and has been recognised by major organisations involved in computing education (Bell & Vahrenhold 2018). New Zealand also features well in papers presented at international conferences about computing education; in a 2021 survey entitled ‘Where is Computer Science Education Research Happening?’, the University of Auckland was sixth in a list of ‘international’ [i.e., non-US] institutions with the most publications between 2015 and 2020 (Lunn et al 2021).
This brief history cannot mention the countless institutions, private training establishments, university departments, teacher education organisations and volunteers who have worked hard to make a world-class computing education available to our students. The many thousands of software and IT professionals whose mahi represents a thriving industry in Aotearoa testify to their efforts.
Various aspects of these changes in schools are described in more detail in the papers listed in the references (Bell 2014; Bell, Andreae & Lambert 2010; Bell et al 2014a; Bell et al 2014b; Fox-Turnbull 2019; Thompson & Bell 2013; Thompson et al 2013).
Computing education, like the field of computer science, bootstraps itself. We use newly invented tools to help build educational resources, which in turn inspires graduates to create new tools. For example, very early on university computer science departments established internet access, through which we can access the latest information and tools. When teaching tools are inadequate, technically inclined teachers fill the gaps for themselves with tools for testing student programs or automating community-building information collection. Unsung champions have used whatever tools were available to inspire students with a vision of what they could become, and this article is dedicated to them.
The story of making digital technologies a mainstream subject in New Zealand has involved many champions, some of whom are named above. The author particularly wants to acknowledge the contributions of three heroic teachers who were dedicated to the cause, but were taken from us before their time: Gerard MacManus, Lua McRagnaill and Ali Chivers; they didn’t get to see the end of the story, but few teachers really get to see the huge influence they have had on their students.
Some of the historical information about universities is from the wonderful Computing History Displays material from the University of Auckland, created by the late Bob Doran. The author is also grateful to Professor John Penny, who founded the University of Canterbury Computer Science department, and Alison Clear, who led many of the changes in the Institutes of Technology and Polytechnics, for enlightening personal communications that informed this brief history. Ian Witten and Richard Lobb have also provided valuable suggestions.
Tim Bell is a professor in the Department of Computer Science and Software Engineering at the University of Canterbury. His main current research interest is computer science education; in the past he has also worked on computers and music, and data compression. From 1999 to 2004 he was the Head of the Department of Computer Science at Canterbury. His Computer Science Unplugged project is widely used internationally, and its books and videos have been translated into about 25 languages.
He received several awards for computer science education, including an inaugural New Zealand Tertiary Teaching Excellence Award in 2002, the ETH (Zurich) ABZ International Honorary Medal for Fundamental Contributions in Computer Science Education in 2013, the IITP Excellence in IT Education award and the President’s Award for Contribution to the IT Profession in 2014, and the 2018 ACM SIGCSE Outstanding Contribution to Computer Science Education award. He has been an invited or keynote speaker at many computing education conferences and other events. Recently he has been actively involved in the design and deployment of new computer science curriculum in New Zealand schools. He is the author or co-author of over 150 journal and conference papers, and several books.
He is also a qualified musician, and performs regularly on instruments that have black-and-white keyboards.
Bell, T (2014). Establishing a nationwide CS curriculum in New Zealand high schools. Communications of the ACM, 57(2), 28–30. doi.org/10.1145/2556937
Bell, T & Vahrenhold, J (2018). CS Unplugged—How Is It Used, and Does It Work? In Böckenhauer, HJ, Komm, D & Unger, W (Eds.) (2018). Adventures Between Lower Bounds and Higher Altitudes: Essays Dedicated to Juraj Hromkovič on the Occasion of His 60th Birthday (Vol. 11011). Springer, Cham (pp. 497–521). Springer
Bell, T, Andreae, P & Lambert, L (2010). Computer Science in New Zealand High Schools. In Conferences in Research and Practice in Information Technology Series (Vol. 103)
Bell, T, Andreae, P & Robins, A (2014). A case study of the introduction of computer science in NZ schools. ACM Transactions on Computing Education (TOCE), 14(2), 1–31
Bell, T, Duncan, C, Jarman, S & Newton, H (2014). Presenting Computer Science Concepts to High School Students. Olympiads in Informatics, 8, 3–19
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