Ideas@TheCentre – The Centre for Independent Studies


Ideas@TheCentre brings you ammunition for conversations around the table.  3 short articles from CIS researchers emailed every Friday on the issues of the week.

Decoding fact and fiction in coding

Trisha Jha

20 November 2015 | Ideas@TheCentre

d03ea4e7-bd39-4441-beee-8ce9fde55f76We’re seeing an increasingly apparent borderline obsession with getting primary school age kids to learn to ‘code’, i.e. computer programming. Bill Shorten promoted it in his Budget Reply speech this year and various commentators have formed a chorus.

The focus on coding does have sensible origins. The 2009 Melbourne Declaration made the fairly common-sense observation that school students should be prepared for “a world in which information technology will be ubiquitous.”

It seems schools aren’t doing a very good job. The National Assessment Program includes an ICT component, and the 2014 report for Years 6 and 10 released this week shows  test performance – in terms of mean scores and the percentage of students reaching basic standards – is poor and has declined since 2011. Only 55% of Year 6 students were deemed proficient, and just 52% of Year 10 students. Results were also differentiated by socio-economic status, with kids from professional urban households performing better than their rural and underprivileged peers.

It should not be surprising that ‘digital natives’ may not be so skilled after all. The technology people use on a daily basis is becoming less technical and more focused on ‘idiot proof’ apps.

Is it any wonder, then, that even children who are accustomed to using technology are often failing to grasp how to use it to complete concrete tasks? The idea that schools can ‘teach’ computing skills, the skills necessary for ‘creative and productive’ use of technology (as the Melbourne Declaration proposes) just by replacing the whiteboard with a smartboard, and exercise books with computers, is folly.

If the obsession with coding is shorthand for more explicit and purposeful teaching of ICT, as ACARA CEO Rob Randall has said there should be, then there’s something to it. But trying to cram the teaching of a highly specific skill (likely by poorly-trained instructors, given there is already a shortage of maths and science teachers) into an already-crowded curriculum can only make things worse – especially when so many kids are still not functionally literate or numerate. Those are skills that even the most brilliant of software engineers cannot do without.

Federal government hypocrisy with Indigenous Advancement Strategy

Sara Hudson

20 November 2015 | Ideas@TheCentre

eeef3e49-da07-4c49-ae92-5bc6cf8cf9ebAt a Sydney forum on the Indigenous Advancement Strategy guidelines, it was clear the actions undertaken by the government in implementing this reform are in direct conflict with the narrative they are spinning.

There was a case for reform. Before the federal government’s decision to merge 150 programs into five, 820 organisations received funding under 84 different programs to deliver services to Indigenous people.  Overall, the 820 organisations were required to submit a total of 20,671 performance, financial and acquittal reports – each organisation had on average 4.5 funding agreements though one organisation had 55 different funding agreements.

Yet, the way in which the government has acted in implementing this reform smacks of hypocrisy.

According to the government the changes were necessary to minimise bureaucracy and increase transparency and accountability, but there has been little to no transparency in the government’s processes regarding who gets funding.

The reforms have apparently reduced silos by merging eight separate government departments into the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, but it seems the process hasn’t actually reduced the number of different programs being administered – just shuffled them into slightly smaller silos of seemingly arbitrary program headings.

The Indigenous Advancement Strategy aims to put Indigenous communities and people at the centre of design and delivery of programs, but less than half the successful applicants for funding were Indigenous organisations.

While the government argues the changes were necessary to provide greater flexibility and bring about long-term sustainability, more than half the grants published in the first two funding rounds were for amounts of $15,000 or less and for periods of fewer than six months.

Such short-term agreements make it extremely difficult for organisations to attract, train and retain Indigenous staff.  It is also next to impossible to show any evidence of outcomes in such a short space of time.

The government is right in trying to improve the accountability and efficacy of Indigenous program delivery.  At the same time, they also need to make sure they are practicing what they are preaching.

Back to school for research on value of Sydney harbour

Michael Potter

20 November 2015 | Ideas@TheCentre

 27a61ce1-c0a0-44f1-9d1e-7ade943200feLast week we said politicians and media commentators should take remedial maths lessons for getting their tax reform sums wrong.

This time remedial economics lessons are needed, with an article stating that the value of Sydney harbour is (at least) $43 billion. This reporting is completely wrong (it appears as if the error was made by the media, not by the researchers at the Sydney Institute of Marine Science).

The article states that the research put a value of $40 billion on the “premium on real estate near the harbour”. It then takes the $40 billion figure and adds various annual revenues such as tourism, with a value of $1,025m per year, ports ($430m per year), and major events ($400m per year), plus a few other values, to generate an overall value of Sydney harbour of $43 billion.

If you can’t see the problem now, then go back to economics class…

The mistake in the article is that it has added a capital amount (the value of real estate) to a revenue amount (such as port revenue). This is a meaningless calculation, similar to calculating the value of Qantas by adding together its ticket revenues with the value of its planes. Or figuring out my economic value by adding together my annual income to the value of my house. In simple terms, you can’t add together the value of an asset and an income flow. To do the calculation correctly, you need to do a conversion: change the income flows into an asset value, or vice versa.

The article also includes the total revenue of businesses in the harbour, when in simplistic terms the calculation should include only the additional revenue of businesses due to proximity to the harbour. After all, most harbourside businesses could operate elsewhere, albeit with lower income. In addition, the article doesn’t note some double counting in the figures: for example, some port revenue may be counted in tourism expenditure.

As a result, the supposed value of Sydney harbour of $43 billion should be dismissed, and there should be a queue for Economics 101.