ICT has big potential but   can be undermined by poor choices


The demise of BECTA left many involved with ICT in education seriously concerned about the future, and particularly the broadband service to schools. BECTA is gone because it was seen by Ministers as having been slow to move in a number of areas and wasteful. There was also some resentment among stakeholders about the way it handled contracting issues and others remarked on its inexplicable slowness in harnessing and exploiting  open access  software.

Schools have complained in the past of being sold expensive  ICT equipment   that’s not fit for purpose and there have been concerns over the quality of software that has no discernible impact on learning. Salesman have too often  oversold and overstated the benefits of ICT in the classroom, against the backdrop of mixed international evidence as to the impact of ICT on learning.

The consensus is that ICT can be a useful support tool to assist learning (and has significant potential too  for much wider use) but it has to be well-managed and thought through, and too often it isn’t and it  is certainly not an end in itself.

Schools  can be left with a significant longer term  commitment in terms of up-grading both hardware and software when their budgets are under significant pressure.  And those most vociferously in support of ICT in schools, rather too often, have tended to have  a commercial stake in  its success. Finding a genuinely independent ICT adviser is as difficult as finding a genuinely independent financial adviser.

Critics are also conscious of the fact that in the wider world    many big, large scale  ICT contracts don’t deliver on their promise, are over budget and are often late in delivery, with taxpayers often  having to take the consequences.

A 2010 CFBT Education Trust report by Joe Nutt ‘Professional educators and the evolving role of ICT in schools’ found that claims for how technology can improve educational performance in schools are widespread and  influential yet the research evidence is extremely weak and the discourse is often clouded and  confused by the motives and interests of some key individuals and organisations. Nonetheless, huge investments have been made and continue to be made across the developed and the  developing world.  One of the major reasons this has happened is because of an alliance between influential individuals, technology companies and government agencies. A small group of enthusiastic writers and  researchers – ‘ICT Gurus’ termed in this paper ‘techno-zealots’ – have allied themselves with the  suppliers of ICT equipment and convinced many policy-makers of the remarkable, transforming   power of technology. The reports and publications produced by the techno-zealots and their allies  often fail to meet high standards of scholarship and evidence. Typically the likelihood of impact and  better educational outcomes through technology is simply asserted without a remotely compelling  evidence base. There are dissenting voices. There is an increasing body of evidence and research by reputable organisations and educational bodies, which raises serious questions about how ICT  in schools is designed, procured and implemented,’ concluded Nutt

Asked recently by Lord Willis, in the Lords, about the impact of e-learning resources on children’s learning, Lord Hill, the education Minister,  replied: “The DfE reviews existing educational research and commissions its own studies. Overall there is a strong body of evidence linking the effective use of technology to improvements in education. Schools that take a systematic and planned approach to using technology to support education achieve better outcomes with technology than other schools. Strong patterns of impact are also found from pupils’ use of technology to support study at home.” This is certainly an endorsement of ICT in the classroom. But note the Ministers important qualification- ‘effective ; and systematic and planned’. Too often in schools the use of technology has had  none of these characteristics .Given the waste involved in so many large ICT contracts,  pressure on budgets and  the mixed evidence on its impact on learning it is right to be  cautious and circumspect when developing schools ICT policy.

A recent PfS briefing for school suppliers revealed that the capital spend per Academy pupil for ICT had been cut from £1,450 to £800 and the state of the market is perhaps reflected in the fact that RM, a major supplier, has issued a profits warning  fuelling concerns that investment will be placed on the backburner, although investment in broadband technology seems to be safe, for the time being.

The Secretary of State,  Michael Gove, is shortly to make an announcement on ICT policy. In his recent Royal Society speech  he said  “So as well as reviewing our curriculum and strengthening our workforce, we need to look at the way the very technological innovations we are racing to keep up with can help us along the way. We need to change curricula, tests and teaching to keep up with technology, and technology itself is changing curricula, tests, and teaching.” The Government is now aware too  of the progress the exam boards are making in using new technology in tests and examinations.

Lord Hill, in the Lords when discussing the Education bill (still in the Lords), pointed to the fact that “  we have an extraordinarily successful market in educational technology in the UK. We are a leader, so there are strong commercial reasons why we should support it. We want to encourage sharing of evidence of effective practice in the use of technology and improved teacher skills in using it.” He elaborated “We are talking to a number of interested parties-school leaders, professional bodies, educational charities, industry, academics and other experts-about how the department should take forward its thinking about technology. Given the pace of change, we think it important to allow schools and teachers themselves, working with industry, to respond to the changes. We want to give teachers the freedom to choose how to use it to create lessons that engage their pupils and enable them to achieve their full potential.”

That’s fine up to a point but teachers are not always best placed to make informed decisions on what they need and the wrong decision can affect the school for years to come , while ,as we have seen , accessing  sound, genuinely  independent  ICT advice is not that easy. Far too many schools have made decisions  that they have regretted when it  comes to both  hardware and software.

There seems little doubt though that technology will play a greater influence in  learning ,  both in and  outside the classroom,  and in testing.  Virtual education will accelerate learning through interactive multimedia resources, networking via the Internet, interactive television, mobiles, satellites, and other technologies. As Professor Ken Robinson has pointed out, some of the best learning is a product of collaboration and technology can broaden the scope for collaboration, within schools, between schools and indeed across the world. These mediums will probably dominate the preferences of the masses and schools are lagging behind in exploiting new technologies particularly when you look at how young people use these technologies in their social lives. The Internet will also enable  students to take a greater interest in developing the way they learn best. Students will become directors and producers, shaping their lessons to accommodate their learning style and needs.

There is clearly huge potential  for ICT in learning , but also huge  pitfalls if you get it wrong. Caveat Emptor.

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