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An equitable curriculum for a digital age

Louise Starkey

As the tenth anniversaries of The New Zealand Curriculum and Te Marautanga o Aotearoa approach it is timely to consider how we should prepare the next generation of New Zealanders for their digital future. In this article I explore what should be included in a curriculum if we would like all citizens of the future to be able to participate in a digital future. I draw on literature about equity in a digital age and argue that three areas of knowledge and skills should be included within a curriculum: discipline specific knowledge and skills, generic digital knowledge and capabilities, and how to participate within a digital world.

An equitable curriculum for a digital age

Louise Starkey


As the tenth anniversaries of The New Zealand Curriculum and Te Marautanga o Aotearoa approach it is timely to consider how we should prepare the next generation of New Zealanders for their digital future. In this article I explore what should be included in a curriculum if we would like all citizens of the future to be able to participate in a digital future. I draw on literature about equity in a digital age and argue that three areas of knowledge and skills should be included within a curriculum: discipline specific knowledge and skills, generic digital knowledge and capabilities, and how to participate within a digital world.


Digital technologies have been available in society for nearly 50 years. In the 1980s, computers began to make their way into homes and schools for publishing and programming or analysis, the 1990s saw the internet developing and cell phones becoming available, and in the 2000s the internet became increasingly accessible and mobile technologies were beginning to become a global phenomenon (Leiner et al., 2009). In the 2010s, the internet, communication technology, applications, and digital tools are used in the workplace, industry, societal infrastructure, and the home, influencing how people communicate, collaborate, plan, access and analyse information, make connections, and use their leisure time. We have entered a digital age and this has implications for what is taught in schooling and included within the curriculum. In this article, I will explore what the next generation of citizens might need to learn to prepare them for the digital age and therefore what should be included in a curriculum.

A national curriculum outlines what children are expected to learn while at school and is usually determined by the state. The New Zealand Curriculum (Ministry of Education, 2007) and Te Marautanga o Aotearoa (Ministry of Education, 2008) were developed at a time before widespread use of mobile technologies such as netbooks and ultrafast or rural broadband access within schools. In 2017 and 2018, the curriculum documents will be 10 years old; therefore it is timely to be asking what should be in a curriculum that aims to educate the next generation to be citizens of a digital society.

A purpose of schooling is to educate the next generation of citizens. This is a broad definition that bridges differing views of schooling that are influenced by epistemological and political beliefs and context (e.g., Dewey, 1916; Goodlad, Mantle-Bramley, & Goodlad, 2004). Each country or context, though, has its own unique interpretations of what should be included in its curriculum, and these change over time. Also, curriculum can be defined in many ways. At a national policy level, the essence of a national school curriculum is a statement of intent regarding the education to be gained through the schooling process and the learning pathways to the desired knowledge and skills (Ministry of Education, 2007). Official school curricula evolve over time, reflecting changes in society and ideologies (Pinar, 2012). In 2015, the Ministry of Education called together a panel of experts to debate the place of digital technologies in the national curriculum. The panel included representatives from the schooling sector (Máori and English medium), higher education, and information technology industries. Unsurprisingly there were differing opinions on what should be included in a curriculum and at what level. I was a panel member and as the conversation developed it became clear that a research-informed framework was needed for thinking about the place of digital technologies in a curriculum for the future.

An imperative currently underpinning public schooling policy in New Zealand is the aim of providing equitable access to knowledge and skills to prepare young people for the future:

Achieving equity and excellence for every child and young person at school can be a challenge for our education system. (Parata, 2016)

This article is framed within the notion that the curriculum can be a policy mechanism to enable access to knowledge and skills to minimise future inequities in society. In saying this, I acknowledge that explicit and hidden curricula and social, economic, and political forces can also contribute to inequities, but it is the possibilities for reducing inequities that are the focus of this article.

I explore two areas of literature relating to equity in a digital age to consider what should be in a curriculum that aims to educate the next generation to be citizens of a digital society. The first is the debate between social realists and advocates of 21st-century learning (McPhail & Rata, 2016). The second is the broader literature on the nature of digital divides to explore curriculum as a bridging mechanism.

Discipline knowledge and 21st-century skills

At the start of the century, the notion of a “knowledge society” and “information age” began to influence educational policy (e.g., Gilbert, 2005; Dede, 2010). This is reflected in national curricula written for a “knowledge society” that include 21st-century skills that emphasise generic skills or competencies (Priestley, 2011; Voogt & Roblin, 2012). For example, curricula such as the Scotland’s Curriculum for Excellence (Scottish Executive, 2004) and The New Zealand Curriculum include not only what children should know, but also how they should be (Watson, 2010). This is framed as everyday knowledge as opposed to disciplinary knowledge and includes generic skills, capabilities, or competencies that have practical or academic utility. The focus of curriculum on generic skills and competencies has been critiqued by social realists for downgrading knowledge (Young, 2007; Rata, 2012) and for technical instrumentalism (Priestley, 2011).

Social realists argue that the weakening of traditional subject boundaries is problematic and an emphasis on everyday knowledge in a curriculum risks students not learning “powerful knowledge” that is embedded within subject disciplines (Young & Muller, 2010). Rata (2012) warns that such an absence of powerful disciplinary knowledge can lead to social exclusion. The notion of equity underpins the social realists’ rationale for including disciplinary knowledge. Those students who do not have access to powerful disciplinary knowledge through family or connections should be able to access this through the school curriculum and increasingly the use of digital tools are an integral aspect of this knowledge.

McPhail and Rata (2016) juxtapose 21st-century learning and powerful knowledge curriculum models and imply that the models are oppositional. However, it is possible that both discipline knowledge and everyday knowledge can be included within a national curriculum as they are not mutually exclusive (Priestley & Sinnema, 2014). A future national curriculum could include both disciplinary knowledge and everyday knowledge with 21st-century skills.

A curriculum for a digital age should provide access to powerful disciplinary knowledge. Technologies, software, apps, or games embedded within the relevant discipline areas enable discipline based learning. These could be generic software used in a specific way within a discipline, such as database searching in the social sciences or specific types of software such as Sibelius or Garageband in music. For example, students studying geography would be expected to have knowledge of the use and application of geographic information systems. Students of history would be expected to find, critique and analyse historical media or information online. Students in the visual arts may be expected to use digital media tools to manipulate images. A curriculum should be broad enough to allow for diversity and development of tools available, yet specific enough to ensure that students are given the opportunity to learn how to use digital devices, apps, and programmes within a subject to enable access to the disciplinary knowledge and methodologies relevant to the digital age.

This is not to say that discipline knowledge taught within schools has to be framed within discrete subjects. Rigorous teaching of disciplinary knowledge can occur with a cross-disciplinary programme (Beane, 1997). However, successful teaching in cross-curricular programmes requires an appropriate depth of knowledge by the course designers (teachers) to maintain a focus on discipline-based powerful knowledge and intellectual rigour in teaching and learning (Hargreaves & Moore, 2000).

A national curriculum in a digital age should be different to one from the industrial age as the perceived knowledge and skills required to participate in society has evolved over time (Gilbert, 2007). Combining the social realist notion of powerful disciplinary knowledge and 21st-century skills within a national curriculum aligns with the notion that learning in the digital age could include mastering concepts and how knowledge and skills can be integrated, critiqued, developed, shared, and used in a participatory way within and beyond the immediate classroom environment (Starkey, 2011). Such a model is outlined in the digital age learning matrix (Table 1). The prominence of skills and conceptual understanding in this model aligns with the social realist notions of learning powerful knowledge. The notion of creating and sharing knowledge aligns with 21st-century learning principles.

Digital divides

A second area of literature associated with equity in a digital age explores digital divides in society. Social, political, and economic forces in the digital age have the potential to increase inequities in society through the creation of digital divides. However, a carefully developed curriculum, with supporting policies and resourcing, can mitigate this. Three types of digital divides have been identified in the research literature. The first is one of access between those who have digital devices and access to the internet and those who do not; the second divide is between those that have capability to use the digital devices or software and those who do not; and the third divide focuses on outcomes between those who exploit the technology in strategic ways and those who do not (Wei, Teo, Chan, & Tan, 2011).

The first digital divide can be mitigated through policies that support access to devices and the internet in schools and society. While the merits of using digital technologies for teaching and learning continue to be researched and debated (e.g., OECD 2015), there is a danger that not providing access to knowledge and skills for a digital age within a curriculum could widen digital divides and increase inequitable educational. Mitigating the second and third divide could occur through the implementation of a curriculum that aims to promote a more equitable society. This includes two aspects for curriculum development: one that focuses on developing capability and knowledge of digital technologies, software or applications; and the other that focuses on developing the knowledge and skills to participate in a digitally connected world.

Table 1. Digital age learning matrix (Starkey, 2011, adapted with permission)

To bridge the second divide, citizens in a digital world need to be capable users of digital technologies, although what this means from a curriculum aspect is not straightforward. Prensky (2001) suggested that young people are digital natives and know how to use the technologies and the teachers need to catch up, creating the assumption that the capability exists and therefore will not need to be included in a curriculum. Koutropoulos (2011) critiqued these claims and concluded they were not based on evidence and identified significant diversity among youth using digital devices. Meanwhile the notion of digital natives and immigrants has entered the schooling system where some teachers have assumed that students do not need to be taught how to use technologies, or they can learn their peers. In a study within the intermediate schooling context in New Zealand, this notion was found to be detrimental to the learning of the less digitally capable students who did not learn the skills unless they were intentionally taught (Evans, 2014). This aligns with a study by Wu, Chen, Yeh, Wang, and Chang (2014) who found that a potential capability divide emerges between students with learning disabilities and peers if digital capability skills are not specifically taught. In addition, a study of Dutch secondary school students’ use of online information skills found that years at secondary school influenced their capability in applying strategic internet skills, not the time spent online (Van Deursen & Van Diepen, 2013). These studies together suggest that curricula in the digital age should specifically include digital capability to avoid increasing the divide between capable and less capable users. This capability would be within both disciplinary and generic or everyday knowledge for a digital age.

Being digitally capable extends beyond levels of learning and includes a range of competencies that are likely to change as technologies evolve. Generic digital competencies for adults are identified in a European Commission policy report (Ferrari, 2013) and provide a useful starting point to consider capabilities for school curricula. Figure 1 summarises the generic competencies identified by Ferrari (2013), which I have extended to include aspects relevant for a school curriculum in 2016–20.

A school curriculum for the digital age would aim to teach the next generation to be capable, confident, critical, creative, and collaborative users of digital applications, programmes, and tools. The capabilities in Figure 1 provide an indication of the types of areas of competencies that could be included in a national curriculum. Digital capability would be situated across the curriculum in both disciplinary knowledge and everyday knowledge. The types of digital capabilities will evolve over time, with some discipline-specific such as the use of geographical information systems and other generic everyday knowledge such as communicating in a digital environment. Having digital capabilities included within the school curriculum could mitigate a capability digital divide.

The areas of digital competencies include the following:

1.Information: Identify, locate, retrieve, store, organise, and analyse digital information, judging its relevance, authenticity and purpose.

2.Communication: Communicate in digital environments, share resources through online tools, link with others and collaborate through digital tools, interact with and participate in communities and networks, cross-cultural awareness.

3.Content-creation: Create and edit new content (from word processing and programming to images, video and virtual reality); integrate and re-elaborate previous knowledge and content; produce creative expressions, media outputs and programming; deal with and apply intellectual property rights and licences.

4.Safety: Personal protection, data protection, digital identity protection, security measures, and keeping self and others safe from inappropriate use including cyberbullying behaviours.

5.Problem-solving: Identify digital needs and resources, make informed decisions as to which are the most appropriate digital tools according to the purpose or need, solve conceptual problems through digital means, creatively use technologies, solve technical problems, update one’s own and others’ competences.

Figure 1. Generic capabilities for a curriculum in a digital age

(From Ferrari, 2013, p.4, with adaptions in italics)

Digital capabilities include both disciplinary knowledge (computer science) and generic capabilities. Advocates of including computer science as a separate learning area in national curriculum have argued that all students, to be digitally capable, should gain some understanding of how digital technologies work. Kafai and Burke (2013) suggest that understanding coding is a digital capability that all students require for their everyday life:

While only a few of us will become computer scientists who will write the code and design the systems that undergird much of our daily life, learning, and leisure, many will encounter the need for some form of programming at some point in our lives. All of us are and will remain users of digital technologies and thus will need at times to be able to critically and constructively examine designs and decisions that went into making them. In terms of the magnitude of what any literacy affords the individual, Paulo Freire estimated that “reading the word is reading the world”. We see reading code very much about reading today’s world in terms of understanding and having the opportunity to remake it. Schools, their leaders, teachers, and students play a critical role in realizing this opportunity. (Kafai & Burke, 2013, p. 64)

There is little research that explores the validity of the claim that everyone is likely to need to programme in their lives or the extent of the knowledge that may be needed to be judged as digitally capable. However, some knowledge of coding and computer science could be an empowering aspect of a rounded education, similar to learning about music, arts, and performance.

Just where coding or computer science is to be situated within a national curriculum has been the subject of debate and lobbying. Fluck et al. (2016) argue that maintaining global economic competitiveness, social realism, and cultural empowerment are reasons for a distinct subject. The political impetus for coding to be included at all levels of a national curriculum appears to be based on following international trends and industry concerns that too few students currently leave school with qualifications that include computer science or coding (Barback, 2016; Perry, 2015).

As a subject, computer science in New Zealand is predominantly studied in the final years of schooling as an option, although coding has been successfully introduced to younger students in schools through the technology curriculum (Falloon, 2015). Proponents of the inclusion of computer science have suggested it is more suited to secondary school education (Fluck et al, 2016). The inclusion of coding or computer science is more contentious at the primary school level with concern about an overcrowded curriculum, resourcing, and teachers’ content knowledge.

England and Australia have recently included computational skills or coding to their core curriculum and proponents have advocated that New Zealand do the same (Bell, Andreae, & Robins, 2014). A recent government announcement stated that digital technologies will be added to the New Zealand national curriculum as disciplinary knowledge within the technology learning area (Stuff, 2016). This is perhaps a pragmatic approach to allow a curriculum “tweak” within a subject area rather than redeveloping the existing national curriculum documents.

It appears that two pathways should exist in a national curriculum. The first pathway would develop digital capability and knowledge that all students should access. This pathway requires significant development before it is fully enacted within schools. The second pathway is for students who choose to specialise in computer science at secondary school.

A curriculum that enables participation

In a digital age, individuals and groups have the opportunity to access and influence society beyond their immediate physical environment through connections via the internet, as a type of digital democracy (Andreotti & Pashby, 2013). Research that has examined demographic characteristics and participation in digital democracy has identified a third digital divide. A study into the use of the internet in the Netherlands found that internet usage varied according to socio-demographic variables. Those with low levels of education and people with disabilities spent more time using the internet than those with higher levels of education, and the use of the internet varied with those with low levels of education making less use of the internet to access information and for personal development than the people with higher levels of education (Van Deursen & Van Dijk, 2015). In a further study, the authors found that those with higher levels of education had higher levels of internet skills (Van Deursen, Van Dijk, & Ten Klooster, 2015) and over time operational skills improved across all groups of people, but those with higher education retained superior knowledge of information and strategic skills that enabled them to make decisions that optimised solutions to problems through the use of the internet (Van Deursen & Van Dijk, 2014). This aligns with other researchers who have identified a usage gap between different socioeconomic groups in society (e.g., DiMaggio, Hargittai, Celeste, & Shafer, 2004; Zillien & Hargaittai, 2009). Countries or economies in the OECD examined through PISA in 2012 had no significant differences related to socioeconomic status in the frequency of digital gaming, but there was when it came to reading the news or obtaining practical information from the internet where advantaged students were more likely to report doing this at least once a week (OECD, 2015). The research suggests that currently those from high socioeconomic, advantaged contexts are able to participate in a digital age society through the strategic use of the internet to engage politically, economically, and socially. The inclusion of strategic use of the internet to participate in society within a national curriculum will provide the knowledge and skills to all students.

Van Deursen and Van Dijk (2014) suggested that participation in future digital societies may mirror existing power inequalities as the internet matures. From a schooling perspective, the curriculum could be an important policy tool to provide equitable opportunities by ensuring critical engagement through digital technologies from a young age, to support social participation. An equitable digital-age society may include in its school curriculum the knowledge, skills, and dispositions to enable strategic personal and group political, social, economic, environmental, and cultural participation. The third divide may be reduced if the curriculum included strategic digital skills that enabled individuals to participate in ways that empowered their position in society.

A school curriculum can include guidance on how to be citizens with the knowledge, skills, and confidence to use the internet and technologies in strategic ways and thus minimise the third digital divide. Educational researchers have suggested different ways that participation could be framed. For example, Warschauer (2003) drew on the social inclusion discourse to consider participation in a digital world and suggested that social inclusion encompasses citizens applying the knowledge and skills of digital participation in society to control their own destinies. Biesta and Priestley (2013) advocate for a curriculum to be about “being human”; within this, citizenship education in schools should be about personal responsibility. Freire (2000) advocates a critical pedagogy curriculum that develops consciousness of power, authoritarian tendencies and how to take constructive action. While the research that explores digital has focused on divisions between individuals and groups within society, and currently has a social inclusion focus, a curriculum that is preparing students to be citizens in a digital age should also include personal responsibility and develop awareness of context, power, and actions taken.

Citizenship education includes different components that have evolved over time. For example, citizen identity of young people has changed since the 1980s and continues to change with the use of social media and managing online identities. Older citizens identify with institutions such as political parties, church, unions or service organisations which have less meaning for younger people (Bennett, Wells, & Rank, 2009). These authors noted a change in orientation from dutiful citizen to active citizen that has been magnified by the introduction of social media. Emerging ideas about citizenship education has implications when considering how a curriculum can be a tool to reduce inequities. For example, Andreotti and Pashby (2013) advocate critical global citizenship education:

It aims to equip individuals to go beyond a benevolent discourse of “helping others” and promotes recognition of complicity within geopolitical power relations and the reproduction of inequalities. Students are to think differently and to reflect critically on the legacies and processes of their own cultures and contexts that they can imagine different futures and take ethical responsibility for their actions and decisions. (p. 426)

It is likely that these and other ideas of citizenship will develop and evolve as contested notions of citizenship need to be considered in future curriculum development relating to digital engagement to mitigate inequities through participation in society. Developing knowledge of how, when, and why to participate in the digital world, and the consequences of actions, could be embedded within the disciplinary area of the social sciences.

The infusion of the digital world across the curriculum

Equitable access to digital technologies and the fusion of digital age competencies, skills, and powerful use of technologies into school-based learning aligns with the aim of providing equitable access to knowledge and skills to participate in a digital future. To enable this, each subject discipline would include how digital technologies are infused to enable powerful learning. Examples are included in Table 2. These are indicative only as they were developed without consultation with subject experts.

Table 2. Examples of the infusion of the digital age across a curriculum

Curriculum area

Examples of the infusion of the digital age across a curriculum

Generic digital capabilities

Use of digital technologies

Data protection

Problem solving

Learning through online environments, communicating, problem solving, critical thinking, creative thinking, collaboration, connecting . . .

Thinking critically about when and how to use digital tools.

Health and physical education

Ethical behaviour and safety in the online environment and while using digital tools, including digital identity protection and keeping self and others safe from inappropriate use including cyberbullying behaviours. Digital tools to analyse physical activity


Computational thinking


Communicating in digital environments

Creating, sharing and critiquing original literature

Digital media

Written communication rather than writing

The arts

Infusion of digital tools specific to the creative arts. For example, creating video with special effects within performing arts, music production through digital tools

The addition of calligraphy and fine motor skills into the fine arts

Learning languages

Inclusive of the globally connected communication and multimedia online environments online


The infusion of digital tools into scientific exploration including the use of digital tools for data gathering, analysis, collaboration, and sharing

Social sciences

Critical use of information- evaluate relevance, authenticity and purpose

Being a digital citizen and critical global citizenship education

Participation in a digital world at a local, national and global levels

Specific tools within discipline areas such as GIS within geography, digital modelling within economics


Development of programmes or digital solutions to problems or needs (including coding)

Intellectual property rights

Solve technical problems

An evolving curriculum includes new ways of thinking about learning and living in society. This may cause some aspects of learning to gain greater prominence and other ideas to become redundant. The ubiquity of computers and the emergence of new technologies stimulates rethinking of curriculum goals and guidelines.


I argue that a curriculum for the digital age should include both disciplinary and everyday knowledge of society and that it needs to evolve as society changes. An aspirational aim for education is to prepare the next generation to be able to participate effectively and equitably in future societies, and curriculum developments needs to address this aim in respect of digital competence and participation. Drawing on literature that explores equity in a digital age, I have identified three overlapping aspects that should be included in a school curriculum that aims to prepare students for the digital age: embedding relevant digital tools and methodologies to enable learning powerful knowledge within disciplines; identifying 21st-century capabilities or competencies that prepare students for living in a digital age; and identifying the knowledge and strategic skills that are needed to enable democratic participation in a digital age.

Evidence examining young people using digital technologies at school suggests that having access alone will not enable the kind of learning that students need in a digital age. Students need to be explicitly taught the skills and knowledge that enables their democratic participation in society. However, a curriculum designed to prepare young people for a digital age should also align with the implementation of policies that enable all students to have adequate access to the tools and connections inherent in such a curriculum, otherwise there is a risk of mismatched policies widening divides in academic achievement and ability to participate in a digital future.


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The author

Louise Starkey is a senior lecturer in the School of Education at Victoria University of Wellington. Louise’s research is focused on teaching, learning and policy in a digital age. She is the author of Teaching and Learning in the Digital Age, published by Routledge.