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Co-ed coders: Bill Shorten wants to geek up the classroom

Opposition Leader Bill Shorten is on a drive to bring coding into the classroom, saying Australia needs to encourage more students and teachers to understand the "global language of the digital age."

US students have already seen coding in the classroom under a non-profit initiative known as "Hour of Code." Screenshot by CNET

Federal Opposition Leader Bill Shorten has called for coding to be taught in classrooms, saying that Australian children deserve "the chance to read, write and work with the global language of the digital age."

In his budget reply speech on Thursday night, the Leader of the Opposition said that "digital technologies, computer science and coding" should be taught in every primary and secondary school in the country, announcing Labor initiatives to increase teachers' skills in the field as part of a promotion of STEM (science, technology, education and maths) in education.

"All of us who have had our children teach us how to download an app know how quickly children adapt to new technology. But I don't just want Australian kids playing with technology, I want them to have the chance to understand it, to create it, and work with it," he said.

"Coding is the literacy of the 21st Century."

The comments are well-timed for Microsoft, which is launching a number of #WeSpeakCode events around Australia this week to teach more than 7,000 students the basics of coding and encourage support for the discipline in school curriculums.

A similar drive towards classroom coding has had an upswell of support in the United States, thanks to a non-profit initiative known as Hour of Code. Launched in 2013, the program aimed to teach 10 million Kindergarten to Year 12 students the elements of coding and received high-profile backing from the likes of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates.

To get the ball rolling in Australia, the Opposition Leader's office said Labor "will work with the states and territories, teaching bodies, school systems and the Australian Curriculum and Reporting Authority (ACARA) to examine the best way to lift the status of coding to a core skill," in particular by training educators to teach the subject.

Teaching the teachers

Mr Shorten said the drive towards a digitally-literate classroom would begin with "great teachers." However, he cited statistics that 20,000 teachers science, maths and IT classes did not study the subjects at university.

As a result, he announced measures to be introduced by an alternative Labor Government to encourage the teaching of teachers and to lure new graduates to the field.

These include plans to train current teachers and those graduating from the science and technology fields and, in a sweetener for those looking at university study, "write off the HECS debt of 100,000 science technology, engineering and maths students."

Labor would offer 20,000 HECS-HELP-free university places a year over 5 years, with "selection criteria to target increasing enrolments in under-represented groups like women." According to Mr Shorten, a key goal of the Opposition is to encourage more women to study, teach and work in STEM fields.

Mr Shorten's office also said Labor would support 5,000 primary and secondary teachers to undertake professional development in STEM disciplines each year, as well as providing 25,000 teaching scholarships over 5 years to new and recent graduates of STEM degrees. Finally, STEM graduates will be able to apply for up to AU$15,000 in incentive payments metered out after graduation and a year of teaching.

But while the Opposition Leader was eager to talk up STEM training and coding in the classroom last night, he was quick to bring it into real-world terms.

"A career in science does not only mean a lifetime in a lab coat, it means opening doors in every facet and field of our national commercial life," he said.

"We need to offer the most powerful incentive to Australians thinking about studying science and technology: a good job."