How schools can empower students for a digital future

How schools can empower students for a digital future

Recent data has sounded the alarm on the digital skills gaps in Australian schools – an issue that is impacting students' outcomes and future workforce readiness.

A 2023 report by RMIT University found that nearly one in four Australians are digitally excluded, with low-income families disproportionately impacted. Furthermore, 84% of students without adequate access to computers struggle to complete classwork and assignments – an issue affecting two in five Year 6 students and one in four Year 10 students​​.

According to Digital Skills Organisation, surging demand for workers in this critical field is pushing Australia towards a critical shortage of over 370,000 digital expert and digitally enabled workers by 2026.

Martha McKeen is Chief Strategy Officer at Grok Academy. Prior to joining the company in November 2023, Mckeen worked extensively across education, technology, and cyber security portfolios at the Commonwealth Bank, including working with Grok Academy as an industry partner to launch the Schools Cyber Security Challenges initiative.

Below, The Educator speaks to McKeen about how Australia’s education system can play a powerful role in addressing Australia’s critical tech skills shortage, why schools need to get more girls into tech, and how teachers, principals and students can take advantage of the AI revolution.

TE: In your view, what role can Australia’s education system play in addressing the nation’s critical tech skills shortage?

Technology has fundamentally reshaped almost every aspect of our lives and it will continue to do so as it evolves and becomes seamlessly embedded in all our devices, tools, appliances and processes. Therefore, it is crucial we engage the next generation early and empower them with the skills and knowledge they’ll need to thrive in an increasingly digital world.

Showcasing the vast range of applications of digital skills to young people can sow the seed that could become their future career choice. The education system, and particularly the delivery of the Australian Curriculum: Digital Technologies (AC:DT) plays the most vital role in giving young Australians skills that prepare them for a future that is becoming unpredictable, and an economy that urgently needs hundreds of thousands of tech-savvy workers.

TE: In recent years there has been a push to improve girls’ participation in the tech industry. Are current approaches to engaging girls in STEM education working as well as they could be? If not, what approach(es) do you believe will help?

While the gender imbalance in STEM careers is undeniable, our data shows that the tide is slowly turning with more girls choosing to study Digital Technologies. From 2022 to 2023 we saw a 36% increase in female student enrolments on our e-learning platform. Additionally, our National Computer Science School summer program earlier this year had an almost equal gender ratio.

That said, there is still a long way to go. Engaging girls in STEM requires collaboration across the education ecosystem and with industry, but there are two things we can do right now: 1) dispel the gender stereotypes that still plague our schools and 2) increase mentorship in schools and industry so girls are actively encouraged to consider lucrative career opportunities in tech and adjacent industries.

TE: With generative AI evolving quickly, there are efforts to ensure its impact on schooling is a positive one. Recently we saw the trial of NSWEduChat, which offers the data protection, privacy and ethical standards that commercial AI chatbots don't. You said you would like to see the Department “go a lot further on this front”. What might this look like in a practical sense?

Recent research found three out of four students are using AI to do classwork at school or university, so government and schools are playing catchup when it comes to regulating and harnessing this technology. The Australian Framework for Generative Artificial Intelligence (AI) in Schools, as well as trials of GenAI tools by Departments of Education in NSW, WA and SA, are important steps toward exploring the potential of GenAI in schools and helping to democratise access to GenAI tools through initiatives like NSWEduChat (by removing premium pay walls that make accessing commercial tools like ChatGPT 4.0 prohibitive for some families and students).

However, where we would like to see more focus on the part of Departments of Education is on training teachers on how GenAI works, what it can and can’t do and where is poses some risks when used by students. For example, despite marked improvements made in each generation of GenAI tools like ChatGPT, all AI models have the risk of “hallucinating” and rendering responses that are inaccurate. GenAI tools have improved their contextual understanding of user queries which has helped generate more accurate responses but even still, as tools like ChatGPT continue to grow in popularity and the sheer number and breadth of queries submitted increases, the chance of errors is always present. Teachers and students must be mindful of this and encourage fact checking of references cited by GenAI tools.

Finally, humans have a tendency to anthropomorphise objects and non-intelligent things. GenAI is no different and teachers must play a role in helping students create healthy boundaries and monitor for situations where student interactions with GenAI assisted tools becomes dangerous (eg. When a tool makes inappropriate suggestions or advice for example about mental health).  

It’s critical that teachers understand these constraints and risks and can help educate their students and encourage critical thinking and scrutinising when using GenAI assisted tools. As always Departments of Education play a key role in providing the support and training required to assist teachers in this regard.

TE: Looking ahead, what do you see as the most significant opportunities for Australia’s education policymakers to make meaningful change when it comes to preparing young people for a future that is likely to be dominated by automation, AI, and digital applications?

I believe there are three urgent points for consideration:

  1. Teachers are under-resourced, over-worked, and often not qualified to teach Digital Technologies, let alone AI. The most important thing we can do right now is to educate teachers about AI – what it is and how it works.
  2. Federal Government needs to play a central role in rolling out professional development programs to upskill teachers in digital technologies and emerging technologies like AI.
  3. Teachers never learned DT at school, or at university in their teaching degree. Tertiary education programs need to get up to speed with digital technologies and AI so they can effectively deliver the AC:DT and help students prepare for a tech and AI-powered economy.