Staying ahead of the game

I’ve just had the pleasure of being a part of an intensive two-day Deep Learning Lab in Christchurch with educators from the NZ schools involved in the global NPDL project. Final day keynote speaker was Kaila Colbin, a TEDx licensee, and NZ Ambassador for Singularity University. Kaila shared a compelling message about the impact of exponential change, explaining how our traditional, linear approaches to coping with change simply won’t cut it as we step forward into the future.

Much of this change is can be seen in the area of technology, across all walks of life, from education, to transport, to health and so on. New Zealand current stands pretty well in this area according to the recently released Digital Evolution Index (DEI) from the Fletcher business school at Tufts University in Boston. This report is basically a digital pulse of 60 developed countries.

The report is a data-driven holistic evaluation of the progress of the digital economy across 60 countries, combining more than 100 different indicators across four key drivers: Supply Conditions, Demand Conditions, Institutional Environment, and Innovation and Change. It segments the 60 countries into Stand Outs, Stall Outs, Break Outs and Watch Outs. New Zealand is one of three countries are notable as standouts even within the Stand Out segment, the others being Singapore and the UAE. The report identifies these three as having a unique policy-led digital strategy and a narrative that may be considered by other nations as worthy of emulation or adoption.

This is great news for New Zealand, and credit to the many innovators and risk takers in our midst who have stepped out and created opportunities to develop new products and services that utilise these technologies. It’s also a testament to the many businesses, tertiary providers and schools that provide opportunities for staff/students to pursue their interest in digital technologies – and gives weight to the argument for a digital technologies curriculum I can hear some say.

While we have good cause to celebrate the result, Kaila’s words regarding exponential change keep ringing in my ears – and reminding me that in this world we cannot afford to sit on our laurels. As the DEI report highlights in the section about countries in the Stand Out category:

“…sustaining consistently high momentum over time is challenging, as innovation-led expansions are often lumpy phenomena. To stay ahead, these countries need to keep their innovation engines in top gear and generate new demand, failing which they risk stalling out.”

Herein lies the crunch. The biggest challenge, according to this report, will inevitably come from the group of countries in the Break Out category – those that are low-scoring in their current states of becoming digital but are evolving rapidly. According to the report key Break Out countries that have the potential to become the Stand Out countries of the future are China, Malaysia, Saudi Arabia, Kenya, and Russia.

Which brings me to the point of my reflection. Our continued success in this area will require a substantial amount of effort and focus if we aren’t to be overtaken. In our schools this means a significant change in emphasis in the way we think about the ways we teach about, with and through digital technologies, for while the evidence at the ‘output’ end is currently encouraging, the evidence of what is happening for the next generation of digital expertise in NZ isn’t as hopeful.

Rachel Bolsted’s recent research published by NZCER paints a picture of increasingly focused use of digital technologies to support both student and teacher learning, but falls well short of being convincing that the sector really has a grasp of the significance of the exponential nature of the change afoot.

The latest OECD report on Students, computers and learning paints a similarly concerning picture, highlighting across all countries involved that while teachers say they value 21st century pedagogies their practice doesn’t reflect that. In several of the cross-country comparisons in this report, New Zealand appears close to or below the OECD average.

The issue here is about the pace of change, and the fact that we cannot afford to maintain an approach based on our traditional ‘linear’ models of change management and approaches to PLD. While NZ may be able to celebrate having a high level digital strategy approach as identified by the DEI, we have to ensure this is being exploited fully at the everyday level in our schools and kura, and taken advantage of to ensure that our young people are given the opportunity to grow fully as innovators, design thinkers and digitally fluent young people. This is not about simply focusing then on developing a greater number of coders or computer engineers (as necessary as those skills may be) – but must focus on building the capabilities and contribution of a wide range of people, that includes the coders and engineers, but also the writers, communicators, designers, artists… building and creating multi-disciplinary teams for whom collaborative activity comes naturally, and where the principles of design thinking strategies guide their involvement.

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