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1990 Summary Report of a Project Investigating Implications of the Innovation of Computer Education in Queensland Secondary Schools

Bill Atweh*
Anne Hickling-Hudson
Noel Preston
* School of Teacher Education, Queensland University of Technology (Kelvin Grove Campus).
This document is the final report of an investigation into the social, ethical and practical implications of the innovation of Computer Education in Queensland Schools. Thirteen schools, seven metropolitan and six country and provincial schools took part in the investigation. The schools represented different types: State co-educational, private girls' and private boys' schools. Interviews were conducted in each school with the principal, computer coordinator and a teacher who was nominated as a major user of the computer, a non computer-user teacher and the remedial teacher of the school. A student questionnaire was given out to about 40 students in grade 10 and grade 12 of each school.

The project had the following aims:

  1. To investigate the factors influencing curriculum variations in the use of computers in different types of secondary schools.
  2. To investigate the implications of administrative practices in the use of the computer in different types of schools.
  3. To investigate the equity issues involved in computer resourcing and use in different types of schools.
  4. To investigate the patterns of student access to, and use of computers.
  5. To investigate the level of awareness in schools of the social and ethical implications of computer technology.
  6. To investigate the level of adequacy in the use of computers of final year pre-service student teachers at the Kelvin Grove Campus of the Brisbane College of Advanced Education (now the Queensland University of Technology).
The report argues that:
  1. Computers in the curriculum should be used as conceptual tools for developing high level skills rather than being used to develop computer competency as an end in self.
  2. Computer competence should be developed in context. This means that rather than being pursued as a separate subject, computer competence should be developed in all subject areas across the curriculum.
  3. The special problems of computer use encountered by certain segments of the student population, especially girls, should receive more attention in research and remediation programs.
  4. The school curriculum should be re-examined to allow for a significant increase in discussion of the social and ethical issues raised by technology in society. Computers should be seen as an instrument to further the aims of socially critical perspectives and non merely as utilitarian tools for jobs and employment.
  5. There should be an increase in the systematic training of teachers in the operation of the computer and in the use of relevant software to equip them to make more critical use of the computer.
  6. Institutions responsible for the preparation of teachers should look at their courses very closely and ensure that all their graduates have some level of computer competency and are capable of making informed decisions about the appropriate software tools to use in their teaching. Graduates should also be aware of the social and ethical issues raised by technology in society.
What follows are pertinent extracts from the full research report.

Research Methodology

Considering the diverse types of questions that this investigation sets out to research, it was necessary to use different research and data collection techniques. Some of the research aims were explored through critical analysis of policy documents and interviewing people involved in their development. Other research questions gave rise to ethnographic techniques including school visits, interviews with different school populations and classroom observation. Still other questions in the investigation required systematic data to be collected on a large sample of students.

Initially the researchers consulted with appropriate personnel from the Queensland Education Department. At this stage an extensive review of the international literature on computer education was conducted, in conjunction with an examination of Queensland policy and curriculum documents. A background paper based on this review was prepared by a research assistant to inform the researchers.

Thirteen Queensland schools provided the major data for the study. They were selected to provide as far as possible a spread across the following factors: private/public; gender; socio-economic status (SES); rural/ urban.

Six metropolitan schools were identified initially. They represented three types: two were State schools; and two private boys' and two private girls' schools.

A selection was made to provide a spread between schools of high socio-economic status and schools of low socio-economic status. This classification was done initially by the investigators, and confirmed through consultations with colleagues, officers of the Department of Education and the Association of Teachers in Independent Schools.

Two factors were taken into account in classifying the school according to status. A low status school was defined as a school where the majority of its students came from a lower socio-economic family background and where the overall ethos of the school is non-academic. Most Queensland schools carry the whole range of board subjects at the senior level. The non-academic ethos of a school is indicated by the number of non-board subjects offered by these schools and the number of students enrolled in these subjects in contrast to tertiary leading subjects. A high status school was one with an academic ethos and in which the majority of students came from a high SES family background (fathers, and often mothers, in professional/ managerial occupations and with a tertiary education).

The information collected from this study itself confirms the correctness of the school status classification in all instances. However, one point should be stressed about this classification. The criteria used here are not sufficiently rigorous to be used as an absolute classification of every school as a low or high status school. That is, there is a great spread of socio-economic backgrounds, for example, within schools classified as low status. Yet in every case the distribution of the socio-economic status for the majority of students in that school is significantly lower than that in the corresponding high status school. This report will identify the schools by the following assumed names:

High StatusWestern Suburbs SHSKings SchoolQueens School
Low StatusSouth Suburban SHSSt Carlos RCSt Agatha RC

After data had been collected from these six Brisbane schools, another private school, of high socio-economic status from Brisbane was added to the sample because of its unique role in computer education in the State. This co-educational school is one of the early pioneers in computer education in the State as well as probably one of the best equipped and known schools in the area of computer education. It is referred to as St Sebastian's Independent Coed.

Six schools from country areas were included. Three schools, all State schools, are from rural communities. Two of these had significant Aboriginal populations. In addition, the sample contained two private schools - a girls' school of high SES and a boys' school of low SES. The sixth school was a co-educational State school from a provincial town. Private, single sex schools are not common in rural areas hence none is represented in this sample. The schools came from the south west and south east corner of the State, from an area within 500 km from Brisbane. Other areas were not represented because of resource limitations of the project. We have identified the rural and provincial schools as follows:

Provincial TownsEast Provincial SHSProvincial Girls
(high SES)
St Ignatius RC
(low SES)
Rural AreasWest Rural SHS
North Rural SHS
Rural Middle School

Each school was visited by one or two researchers for one or two days. The metropolitan schools were visited chiefly by a research assistant to the project while the country schools were visited by the investigators themselves. The research assistant was an experienced high school teacher currently undertaking studies in the Graduate Diploma of Education (Computer Education).

Interviews in each school were conducted with the school principal or his/her deputy. Such interviews aimed at obtaining an overall picture of the school structures, socio-economic background, curriculum and extracurricular activities. An interview with the computer coordinator at the school attempted to obtain information about the history and policy of the computer program at the school. the staff qualifications in, and knowledge of, computers, and the available in-service programs for teachers in that school. Questions were asked about the patterns of use of the computer room, the range of subjects that use the computer, as well as the role of the coordinator as he/she sees it.

Interviews with other teachers (a major computer user, a non-user and the remedial teacher) were conducted to obtain a wider understanding of the use of computers in that school. Most interviews included questions about the major problems/benefits of computers in the school or in the particular subject area. A few questions were repeated in the interviews for cross-referencing and confirmation. Similarly, most interviews included questions about the teachers' awareness of the social impact of computers in society.

Interviews were designed to last between half to one hour. The interviewer stated by explaining the purpose of the investigation as well as the purpose of the interview. Permission was requested to use a tape recorder during the interview. In all except one interview such permission was granted. In one school a tape recorder was not used because of technical difficulties. Many of the tapes were transcribed. These, as well as the interviewers' handwritten notes were used for analysis of the results. The interviews were semi-structured. Each interview had some set questions, often the discussion diverted into other interesting yet unplanned aspects of computer education.

Additional information was obtained from the students of the school. This information was collected in two ways. Each school was asked to nominate three of the high achievement computer students and three of the low achievement computer students. Interviews were conducted with each group separately to obtain an idea of the students' perception of computers, why they had chosen to study them, their difficulty, usefulness and their views on how the computer could contribute to creating a better/worse world. Since different schools offered different computer classes, these groups of students were not selected from similar populations across the various schools. Hence, data from these interviews was not used for comparisons between the different school subjects represented.

The last item used for data collection from the schools was a questionnaire on the pattern of access and computer use of grade 10 and 12 students. Each school was requested to nominate 20 grade 12 students. Where applicable and possible these students were chosen at random and equally representative of boys and girls. The questionnaire asked for the following background information about each student: sex, Year level, parent/guardian-highest level of education and area of work. Further information was asked about the regularity of computer use at school during the last term, the reason and average duration of use, ownership and patterns of use of a home computer, students' expectations of the necessity of ownership and use of computers in the future. Students were also asked to indicate whether certain uses of computers, in their opinion, are more appropriate to males, to females or equally to either sex.

The school visits also included observation of a class using the computer. Once again different classes were available in different schools, hence overall generalisations are not possible. There was no rigorous observation schedules used in these visits. The observer recorded the content of the lesson, the structure and plan of the period, and any other impressions that they obtained from the class.

A further instrument was designed and use with pre-service graduating student teachers. During the conduct of the school interviews it became obvious that teacher training was a relevant problem affecting the development of computer education. A survey was designed to investigate the confidence and knowledge of the 1989 graduating students in the Diploma of Teaching (Secondary) from the Brisbane College of Advanced Education, Kelvin Grove Campus. The questionnaire aimed to find out the level of knowledge of students in computer operation and applications, together with their knowledge of the use of computers in teaching either their primary or secondary teaching areas. (The Diploma of Teaching course requires each student to choose two areas of concentration called Primary Teaching Area and a Secondary Teaching Area respectively.)

Having collected this data the researchers collated and analysed the material for presentation to a workshop of fellow academics and persons involved in school computer education. This workshop provided a basis for a further refinement of the analysis leading to the conclusions of the project.

The Study's Perspective

The study recognised that fundamental to the issue of how, or if, the computer is to be used in the curriculum are questions of philosophy of education. In searching for a preferred normative view of education suitable in a technological culture, the study examined the typological construct for orientations to the curriculum nominated by Kemmis et al (1983) in Towards the Socially Critical School (Victorian Institute of Secondary Education). According to his analysis, the following approaches to education can be iden tified:
  1. Vocational Education
  2. Liberal education
  3. Socially-critical education
In this study we chose a 'socially-critical approach' as preferable.

The study claims that a socially-critical approach will take particular care for the way technocratic culture is mediated into educational institutions. Such an approach addresses the fundamental social and ethical questions necessary to an education for contemporary society: the future of work, equity and justice considerations, the widening of concepts of literacy beyond computer literacy to social and political literacy, the recognition of the limits to growth arguments, as well as the critique of technology outlined above. Above all else, it brings critical mindedness to bear on technocratic mindedness because critical mindedness, cultivated through questioning, dialogue, analysis and action, may restore the reflective and communicative modes of human interaction threatened by technocratic culture. Greater attention will be given to how we teach with the computer rather than simply teaching how to use the computer. So, the critique of technology will be given higher priority than technological competence, though it will not rule out the latter, the latter being a valuable accompaniment of learning, a skill like reading and writing. In the socially-critical approach the computer is seen as an empowering tool for students and its benefits are presented primarily as a social good, not an individual possession. A socially critical approach therefore emphasises questions of equity in school computer organisation.

It was from such a perspective that the researchers analysed their data and made their recommendations.

Summary of Major Issues

1. Some factors influencing curriculum variations

A major aim of this study was the investigation of variations in the use of computers in the curricula of secondary schools in Queensland as well as the investigation of some factors that may explain these variations. There was a particular focus on the effect of the socio-economic status of the school and students, the gender of the student population and the individual student, the school location (rural, provincial or metropolitan) and the school type (private or State).

Any curriculum innovation is affected by the cultural context in which it is implemented. Across the schools visited there were definite cultural differences. This culture or 'ethos' affected assumptions about the role of computers in education and the priority the school was willing to place on computers. However, schools are not always aware of these cultural differences; what they are aware of, in many instances, is the access to, or lack of, resources. This access to resources acts to reinforce the culture or ethos of particular schools. In turn, this culture or ethos seems to play an important role in determining how computers are used; thus creating a very 'ad hoc' policy in most schools.

There is evidence from this investigation that, in general, the ethos surrounding computers in the schools is primarily affected by the socioeconomic background and in some instances by the gender of the student population, as well as by the geographic location of the school. Upscale schools make decisions about computers in the belief that parents expect good computer programs in the school and that students need such programs. On the other hand, in some down scale schools there is a perception that few parents care about computers in education and that few of the students are going to need them. There is a tendency of such an ethos to become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Most schools saw the availability of resources as being the most important factor determining the type of computer education they offer. The view was often expressed that if they had more computer hardware, software and staff expertise, they would have extended their programs and facilities and introduced many more uses of the technology. With few exceptions, the downscale schools seemed to have the least adequate computer resources and curriculum offerings. They have to make hard choices about their spending and often these decisions do not include a high priority on computers.

The rural schools that we observed are also conscious of the needs of their students. The needs of these students are perceived to be in the area of computer applications rather than the more academic computer studies. Smaller numbers of these students indicated that they expected to use the computer as adults. With the exception of one girl's school, girls schools tend to put less importance on developing computer programs and use than boys' schools of comparable socioeconomic background and geographic location.

2. Some observations about administrative practices

The administration of the computer facilities in the schools studied is very centralised. Coordinators in many schools have overwhelming responsibilities. They act in a variety of roles. They are managers of the resources. Many are responsible for looking after the hardware and software, timetabling the use of the room and sometimes supervising students outside class time. In addition, they are responsible for teacher training in the use of the computer in subjects outside their area of expertise They are also responsible for designing curriculum programs in computer methods and for designing curriculum programs in computer methods and studies, and often make decisions on the purpose of hardware and software.

Computer coordinators often carry their duties with very little compensation for their efforts. In many schools they may be given only a few hours release from other teaching duties. More than half of the coordinators observed have had no formal training in computer use in education. Often the coordinators find themselves in such positions of responsibility because they are among very few teachers in the school who had any knowledge in operating a computer. Some were reluctant to hold that position, but they accepted the responsibility because there was no one else in the school to perform the task.

Because the computer administration is very centralised the personality of the coordinators and their leadership style could determine to a large extent the level of utilisation of the room. Some coordinators are rather authoritarian and possessive in their managerial roles, while others are more democratic and open about sharing their responsibilities.

In all schools visited the majority of the computers in the school are kept in special computer rooms. Debate about the appropriateness of such arrangements is beyond the scope of this investigation. However, we found evidence that such practices may limit the use of the computer by some teachers of other subject areas. Some teachers indicated that they prefer to have a few computers in classes such as art or graphics. While some schools do have computers in various departments, this was not a widely followed practice. Further, the existence of special rooms for the computer may reinforce the mystique surrounding the computer in the minds of some teachers and students and their perception as belonging to a single area such as mathematics or science. The possible effects of such arrangements on the use of the room by girls has often been raised in the literature.

3. Student access to computers and questions of equity

From the study of the patterns of student use and access to a computer outside class time few observations can be made. In general the majority of students in the schools do not use the computer outside scheduled classes. Possibly this is a reflection of the fact that the computer is still not perceived as a useful tool for student study in all subject areas. Students who have computer classes tend to use the computer more than other students. Presumably they would be doing assignments for those subjects. This investigation found a disturbing phenomenon that students may study word processing in computer subjects but may not use the skill in other subjects. It is also concernin g that the computer is not used for high level learning skills. The vast majority of use is in the area of word processing and programming.

There is ample evidence that the pattern of use of the computer is not random within and across different types of schools. Girls tend to have less access to computers outside class and at home and use the computer less than boys. Students from up-scale and metropolitan schools tend to use the computer more than students from State schools. Similarly, students from higher social backgrounds have more access and use the computer more than the other students. Once again these patterns can be partially explained by the fact that up-scale schools, and families, have more computers. Yet there is evidence that this is not the sole reason. Student perceptions of the value of the computer and the school's ethos are important contributing factors. None of the schools visited attempted to find which types of students do not use the computer or designed special programs to increase the availability of the computer to these student non-users.

This investigation concludes that in order to achieve equity in opportunity, it is not enough to provide equal amounts of hardware resources to all schools. Educational authorities as well as the individual schools should monitor how these computers are used and how inequality of use can be remedied. The education system in Queensland does not fully recognise the importance of equity issues in computer education. Computers are ultimately tools for information, and in our age, information is cultural capital and power. Access to information is crucial for participating in decision making. Efforts to avoid increasing the gap between the information powerful and powerless should be paramount in our educational thinking and planning.

4. Awareness of socio-ethical issues

A further major aim of this investigation was to observe the level of awareness of administrators, teachers and students about social issues and concerns raised by technology. We also observed the level of preparedness of teachers and schools to deal with these issues in the curriculum.

It is possible to generalise that the social issues related to computers are given minimal attention in the school curriculum. While every school advised us where in the curriculum these issues may be discussed, no school had a systematic approach to deal with these matters. As members of society, administrators and teachers are familiar with the public media perception of technology. They are familiar with the general type of problems being caused by the widespread use of computers. However, in many cases such awareness is limited to those stereotypes and have not been deeply thought through. In particular there is no evidence that the implications of these issues on the lives of students and the school curriculum have been investigated.

The shortcoming of the school curriculum in coming to terms with these issues is partly caused by the great enthusiasm and eagerness to develop computer skills and competencies that are perceived as essential for employment. This is quite ironic since one of the potential effects of technology is that the patterns of traditional employment may be drastically changed. Further, computers are still seen as tools for science, business and mathematics, subjects that have traditionally been concerned with technical know-how rather than with social-issues. The majority of teachers who are involved in planning and teaching computer subjects have little experience in planning and teaching social and ethical issues. On the other hand, teachers of social studies and citizenship education may feel incompetent to deal with these issues because of their limited ability to understand how the computer works. For these the other possible reasons, the social ethical issues related to the computer are still seen as optional extras in computer education and training.

5. An alternative model of computer education in schools

A three dimensional approach was adopted in the report to evaluate and study the role of the computers in the curriculum. The role of the computer in education can only be comprehensively evaluated and understood when the computer use is analysed on all three criteria. The first dimension of our model discusses the level of competency in computer skills developed by the curriculum. The competency dimension ranged from general computer awareness, to skills with using a variety of software, and then to highly specialised skills in computer studies. The second dimension of our model relates to the use of the computer as a conceptual tool. This dimension is a measure of the use of the computer in developing thinking and problem solving ability of students in all school subjects. Underlying these two dimensions is a third dimension that relates to the philosophical perspectives of education underlying the pedagogical use of the computer. At one extreme of this dimension is the vocational view of the role of education in preparing students for jobs and careers. At a higher level is the liberal view of education, which regards preparation for life as a primary objective. And, at the other extreme on this dimension is the socially critical approach to education.

This investigation has clearly shown that decisions about computers in education are being made with undue emphasis on the competency dimension, with some limited attempt to develop the computer as a conceptual tool. There is hardly any evidence that the computer is used in a socially critical mode in existing school curriculum.

This implies that choices about computers in education are being made against inadequate theoretical perspectives. The results of this are computer programs that attempt to develop high levels of computer competency in isolation from the rest of the curriculum. Similarly, decisions about resources reflect this preoccupation with development of skills needed for computer studies and industry at the expense of well rounded programs that utilise the computer as a thinking tool by students to empower them to make informed decisions.

In our view, a primary requirement in developing and evolving future computer programs in schools is a commitment to the socially critical perspective of education. This emphasis does not deny the role of education in equipping students with skills useful for future employment. However, this approach goes beyond vocational training to equip students to make decisions about technology itself.

This emphasis on the socially critical perspective should be supplemented by heavy emphasis on using the computer as a thinking tool across all curriculum activities. Priority should be given to the use of the computer as a source of information and as a tool for problem solving to enhance student learning in all subject areas.

In order to develop the use of the computer as a tool for thinking and making decisions a certain amount of competence is essential. However, at present most programs for developing computer skills do not appear to be encouraging the use of the computer as a conceptual tool and for prompting socially critical perspective. This investigation has raised the issue that current syllabuses on computer methods and studies are resource intensive and tend to develop skills in isolation of the context in which they are to be used. This stress on computer skills tend to lead schools to have few expert teachers at the expense of training all teachers for effective use of the technology. Our preferred model for computer programs in schools endorses curriculum development which fosters teacher and student competencies developed within the existing school subjects.

This approach to the development of computer programs in schools implies that other subjects will take a more active role in the design and use of the computer in the school. In particular the social sciences should play a more extensive role in computers in schools. With an increased involvement of these subjects with computers, solutions to two problems i dentified above may be achieved; namely, the opportunity to deal with the social/ethical aspects of technology and the greater participation by girls in computer use.

Please cite as: Atweh, B., Hickling-Hudson, A. and Preston, N. (1990). 1990 Summary Report of a Project Investigating Implications of the Innovation of Computer Education in Queensland Secondary Schools. Queensland Researcher, 6(2), 32-47. http://www.iier.org.au/qjer/qr6/atweh.html

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