Introducing cyber and digital technologies to high school students is “too late” to shape their future career choices, academic experts have warned, even as new teachers report leaving university with inadequate training to teach the subjects at primary level.

“As a beginning teacher, there’s barely anything at university to help us,” Samantha Warren, a new Year 5/6 teacher at ACT’s Evatt Primary School, said during a session at the recent Australian Cyber Conference.

“It’s not new things they teach you at uni, or ‘here’s how to teach this’,” she explained, recalling that assessments such as making a Google Site website “weren’t helpful to teach [technology].”

“There’s not much teaching at uni about it, and there’s not really much time for us to teach it properly at schools,” she said. “My confidence level is based on the fact that I understand technology and can comprehend how to do it.”

Shortcomings in teacher training perpetuate an education gap that, experts warn, needs to change so students learn to see digital technologies not just as tools for content consumption, but as vehicles for content creation.

“We need primary teachers to build those skills right from the early years,” said Toni Falusi, – an Australian Catholic University academic, president of Information Technology Educators ACT and a Digital Technologies curriculum writer – who emphasised the importance of teaching primary students cyber-safety concepts such as identifying and managing risks to their data.

An early introduction to cyber concepts is also crucial to normalising cyber and digital technologies as potential career choices further down the track: by year four, Falusi warned, students “haven’t really decided what they want to do when they grow up – but they rule out things they don’t want to do.”

“That’s why a lot of the focus [around cyber, digital and STEM education] needs to be in primary school, rather than waiting until Years 11 and 12 for students to make that decision. It’s too late by then.”

Curriculum blues

Despite their warnings, a broad range of new cyber security education programs continue to target students during the high-school years.

South Australian students, for example, have just been given access to IBM’s SkillsBuild for Students and Educators online cyber education program through a partnership with the state government and AustCyber’s SA Cyber Security Innovation Node.

SA high school students “will have the opportunity to begin skilling themselves for a future career in cyber,” SA Minister for Innovation and Skills David Pisoni said in announcing the partnership, which echoes a similar program IBM launched in NSW last year.

Although the well-intentioned programs are designed to help address ongoing cyber security and digital technologies skills gap by shaping students’ university choices, many students have already elected for other career choices by that time.

Stephen Robey, programs manager with science and technology centre Questacon, has seen the effect of this challenge in his work as a science teacher.

“For a lot of my high school students it was too late to engage them in this sort of field,” he explained, noting that “those are real challenges for teachers.”

As well as struggling with inadequate training, very real time pressures limit teachers’ ability to embed digital technologies across the formal curriculum.

“I’d say there is a maximum of 10 hours of the whole school year that we can have that are specific to digital technologies without trying to embed it in other programs as well,” said Evatt teacher Aaron Foy, adding that the “wordy” Digital Technologies curriculum was hard to engage with – and left many teachers struggling to transition students from being eager users of technology to embracing higher-level skills like coding.

Most teaching of such topics is “incidental teaching,” he explained, noting that “for most people as soon as they hear ‘coding’ they have that instant clamp-up and say, ‘I don’t understand that and I’m not going to actually try and develop that because it’s a completely foreign concept to me’.

“Teachers are leaving it in the too-hard basket.”

Despite an “overwhelming” curriculum that pushes teachers to meet achievement standards, Robey said, “often teachers aren’t aware that they’re already employing certain pedagogies or teaching strategies in their classroom; I guarantee that each of those teachers are using and embedding thinking processes in their other subjects.”

Yet clearer instruction will be crucial if primary teachers are to feel comfortable enough to bring cyber and digital technologies teaching to the students that need it most.

Conceding that the formal curriculum can be “hard to understand” and that curriculum reviews had worked to make it more accessible, Falusi noted that “there is so much technical content in the learning area that you can’t simplify it too far – otherwise you’re going to lose the intent of what we want students to actually learn.”

Increasing familiarity with the curriculum had taken time given that “the majority of our teachers didn’t learn this at university,” she added, “so it is new content for them. But once they are familiar with it, I think it will be much easier to embed and integrate into other learning areas – and not have to fit it into 10 hours across the year.”