As a researcher, I'm always interested in the way digital technologies are talked about in education. This morning there was an announcement about new government investment regarding digital technologies in education. Some catchy headlines quickly followed. "Digital shake up for school curriculum", said one headline. "Kids to learn how to code before high school", said another.
I expect the news and commentary around this will continue. Naturally, I'll be paying close attention.
Speaking of which, over the last year or so, I've noticed quite a few stories about New Zealand students engaging in very cool learning activities involving digital technologies.
You might have seen some of these stories too. They usually include photos of happy-looking students doing things like coding, gaming and game design, robotics, or tinkering in “makerspace” environments. Here are some examples:
- Year eight student teaches MPs a lesson in coding
- Students from Auckland's North Shore learn code for space programme
- Waikato school launches ‘maker spaces’
- Robotics competition hardly VEXing for Manawatu students
- Minecraft part of students’ learning at Opaheke school
The teachers interviewed in these stories generally talk about how students are engaged with their learning, tackling and solving interesting challenging problems, and developing knowledge and skills that could open up possible future careers or learning pathways.
Sounds pretty good, right?
Stories like this got me wondering. How widespread are these kind of learning activities? If they really are as good as they sound, are they becoming a more regular part of school learning for students across New Zealand?
Last year we introduced a few new questions into the 2016 NZCER national survey of primary and intermediate schools to try to shed some light on these questions. In this post, I’ll tell you what we asked, what we found out, and what further questions we might need to ask in the future to help us build a richer picture of what’s going on in schools across New Zealand.
How does one find out whether gaming, coding, or “makerspace” activities are happening within a school?
In my last post I discussed what teachers said about students’ use of digital technologies in their classrooms, including for purposes such as digital games/simulations or coding/programming.
One thing I’ve noticed when I’m visiting schools that have gaming, coding, or makerspace activities is that they don’t always sit within day-to-day classroom learning programmes. Sometimes they happen at lunchtimes or after school. Sometimes they're optional extra-curricular activities. Sometimes they happen because enthusiastic teachers make it happen. And sometimes these opportunities occur as part of a special programme supported by organisations external to the school.
In the 2016 NZCER national survey of primary and intermediate schools, we developed some questions to find out about additional out-of-class digital learning activities that might be going on in the school. There wasn’t room to ask many questions, so here's what we asked teachers:
- Do students have opportunities to participate in coding, gaming, or makerspace activities at your school?
- If yes, who plays a significant role in running these?
- How many students in your class have taken part in these activities over the last 12 months, at school?
So what did we find out?
Students’ opportunities to participate in coding, gaming, or makerspace activities
Across all teachers surveyed, 41% indicated their students have opportunities to participate in coding, gaming, or makerspaces at their school. Another 41% said students did not have these opportunities, and 17% were not sure. Overall, teachers from decile 9–10 schools were more likely to say yes (49%) than teachers from decile 1–2 schools (26%).
Who runs these activities?
Of those teachers who said coding, gaming, or makerspace activities did happen in their school (n = 314), most (71%) said that just one or a few teachers had a significant role in running these activities (see Table below). Some said that a principal or senior leader had a significant role (22%) or that students themselves did (19%). It was not common for this responsibility to be shared by most teachers in the school (7%). A few teachers (4%–8%) said parents or community helpers or library staff played a role.
Who plays a significant role in running coding, gaming, or makerspace activities in your school?
How many students are involved?
We asked teachers to estimate how many students in their class had taken part in these activities over the past 12 months at school. Their responses suggest that, in most schools, student participation in these kinds of activities is limited. Overall, it appears that student gaming or coding activities are somewhat more common than makerspace activities, with 41% of teachers saying at least “a small number” of students in their class have participated in these in the past 12 months, compared with only 7% of teachers who said this about makerspace(s). There were no significant decile-related differences.
How many students in your class have taken part in these activities over the past 12 months, at school? (n = 771)
What do these findings tell us?
The data above suggests that gaming, coding, and makerspace activities are still relatively marginal activities in New Zealand primary and intermediate schools. If these opportunities are present, they are generally run by one or a few teachers, and not something that all students have opportunities to be involved in.
Reflecting on these findings makes me wonder: did we ask the right questions? And do these findings matter?
Did we ask the right questions?
These were new questions for the national survey in 2016, and sometimes it can be hard to get the questions exactly right the first time. With hindsight, I can see a few things we could improve on in the future.
Was it clear what we were asking about?
We thought about the best way to ask about all the different kinds of digital technology learning opportunities that students might be having in schools, within a limited number of questions. But different people have different ways of describing these activities. We know that in some schools, students get together in the library or other spaces to play or make digital games, or tinker with coding programmes like Scratch, or play Minecraft. And in some schools, there are other tools and technologies that students might use such as robotics gear, digital interactives, 3D printers, and various other things. We hoped that by lumping these things together and calling them "gaming and coding" and "makerspace activities", teachers would be able to answer the question based on whatever variation of those things might be happening in their schools.
With hindsight, I wonder if the term "makerspace" made sense to all the teachers completing the survey. The term has been gaining currency in recent years, and there is even a makerspace page on TKI. That page defines a makerspace as any kind of space in a school where students are building and creating things, using a range of materials, both digital and non-digital. It might not be a specialised space - it could just be a time of the day or a time of the week where a classroom, library, or other space becomes a makerspace because students are "making stuff" as a purposeful activity for learning. But it's possible that teachers responded to the survey with the assumption that a makerspace has to be a particular kind of space, or have particular kinds of specialised equipment, in order to "count" as a makerspace.
Did we leave out experiences that might be happening in school time, but outside school walls?
By asking about opportunities that happened "at school", could we have missed out on relevant digital learning opportunities that happened outside the school walls? It depends how literally teachers interpreted the phrase "at school". Would they have included trips during school hours to places like digital learning labs, community makerspaces, etc, when they responded to the question?
Either way, I suspect that the number of NZ students who visit these kinds of spaces as part of their school learning probably is still relatively low. It would be useful to have data on the extent to which those sorts of digital learning opportunities are available to students across NZ schools.
Do these findings matter?
If particular learning activities like student coding/gaming/makerspaces are relatively uncommon in New Zealand primary and intermediate schools, does this matter? Should we expect to see more (or less) of these kinds of activities in schools when we conduct our next iteration of the survey in 2019?
Maybe. People think many kinds of learning experiences are important for young people to have in their first 8 years of school. Arguably, one of the biggest challenges for schools today is how to design and deliver a curriculum that offers a breadth of learning activities that support students to develop knowledge, and grow and practise capabilities that will be useful throughout their lives.
What do you think? Leave a comment below and let's continue the conversation!