Melbourne’s experts develop new subject to fight decline in IT enrolments

Written by Alicia Barker

Information technology experts are hoping for renewed interest in computer science in high schools, despite recent VCAA figures showing a decline of enrolments in VCE computing subjects.

Preliminary numbers show enrolments in the ‘IT applications’ subject have dropped from about 6000 students in 2005, to about 3000 in 2015. The number of students studying ‘Software Development’ nearly halved from ten years ago.

There is a “systemic issue” with IT education at the senior secondary level, says computer science researcher at the University of California, Berkeley and associate professor at the University of Melbourne, Steven Bird.

A “disconnect between what the schools teach and what the universities want” has led to few VCE Information Technology students entering computer science degrees, says Professor Bird. Students are more likely to study high level maths or science subjects than IT, with enrolments remaining fairly stable since 2005.

Recognising the issue with getting high school students involved in IT, Professor Bird and other experts at Monash University and the University of Melbourne helped design a new ‘Algorithmics’ subject for the VCE curriculum. The subject is currently being trialled in select schools across Victoria this year and is expected to expand in 2016.

The subject will count towards first year university computer science subjects at the University of Melbourne and Monash University allowing students to get a head start on a computer science degree.

“If they do something like Algorithmics, which is intended to be a very formal introduction to computer science, then it leads much more directly into the undergraduate degree in the area,” says Dr Matthew Butler, lecturer in computer science at Monash University and contributor to the new curriculum.

Students at trial schools are enthusiastic about the subject and its real-life implications, says Professor Bird. Students at Box Hill Secondary School, which is trialling the program, used algorithms to design a movie recommendation service, combining their love of film with the computing skills they learned.

Former IT Applications student, Alissa Tothpal, considered a career in IT after graduating from Ballarat Grammar in 2012. Now a Fine Arts student, Tothpal says there was little interest in IT amongst her peers with only ten people in her VCE class, despite having high quality teachers instructing the subject.

“I think people already know how to use computers to do the things that they need, so I don’t think many people are interested in finding out why they function or how they function.”

A public misunderstanding of what the term ‘I.T’ meant often stopped students from participating at a high school level, says Dr Butler.

“A politician might come out and say, or infer, that it’s all about programming, that we need programming from a very young age. That paints only one picture of I.T.”

Dr Butler is hopeful the new Algorithms subject would inspire many more students to study I.T.

“I think it’s trying to get the message out that there that I.T can involve many different aspects from the very highly theoretical in computer science type things, to the very practical in building things…in the games and multimedia sides of things.”

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Alicia Barker