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Views on current ICT in education debate

Hurray for the government: a new week, a new idea about education. Computing, ICT, digital literacy, call it what you will, is the flavour of the week and Michael Gove is due to make a speech on the subject on Wednesday. I am guessing that the three main themes of this will be that: one there needs to be more rigour in the teaching of computer skills; two that this is vital for the UK’s future economic competitiveness; and three that all schools should teach this irrespective of how ‘free’ from Local Authority control they are.

It’s not that I am necessarily against the teaching of computing in schools. Running an organisation called Digital Explorer, it would be pretty contrary if I were. However, statements such as Ed Vaizey’s comment that knowing how a computer works should be “on a par with a knowledge of the arts and humanities” don’t really help.

It would be great if this latest fad in the national education conversation actually highlighted the good practice that exists in UK schools rather than repeating how poor everything is.

There needs to be a three-pronged approach to the issue of ICT in schools:

First, a decision about which items of ICT usage should be taught through other subjects (if they still exist in a years’ time). Examples could include:

  • Use of word processing in English
  • Use spreadsheets and databases in Science and Maths
  • Internet research and analysis of reliability of sources in History
  • Video conferencing with partner schools in MFL
  • Digital photography and video in Art
  • Online and social media safety in PSHE
  • Blogs and digital mapping in Geography
  • Use online campaigning tools in Citizenship

You get the idea. Pupils use digital tools to learn and communicate their ideas throughout the curriculum, a bit like previous national strategies on literacy and numeracy. This is already happening in many schools. It may well save time and energy for teachers if levels of competence in using various tools were agreed between departments. This would mean that as a Geography teacher you would know what your GCSE class should know about using spreadsheets and creating and interpreting graphs (they learnt this in Key Stage 3 Maths of course!).

Second, decide what should go into a computing class. ICT is probably a misnomer as this subject develops. This is where I become a bit stuck. What would I expect an intern to be able to do, when they come to work for Digital Explorer?

  • An understanding of how to write a blog post and use html tags
  • Formatting a range of digital media for use online, using tools such as image and video editing software
  • An understanding of media sharing platforms and their relative benefits
  • Use of digital mapping
  • Basic coding (I taught myself how to write simple games in Basic using a Spectrum many moons ago and I think that this introduction made it easier for me to pick up using coding languages such as kml later in life)

I would like to be able to adapt and fix hardware in the same way that I would like to be better at car maintenance. I would love to be able to write little scripts that made life easier for me. In short, computing appeals to my creativity. I want to be able to make stuff. I find joy in the translation of lines of code into a wondrous digital environment.

The third aspect is rather more prosaic: infrastructure. Are there enough computers in working order for ICT to become a regular facet of teaching and learning across the curriculum? Will our attitudes to mobiles change with most students bringing a pocket to computer to school every day? Who will come to teach coding? Out of 28,000 new teachers in 2010, just 3 had computing-related degrees. I don’t blame them, when they can be out making a mint in the digital economy. Gove, do something clever, like subsidise company NI contributions if digital employees volunteer in schools once a week.

A caveat to end: technology is a tool not an end in itself. Digital Explorer uses technology because it enables us to share stories from the far-flung corners of the planet with classrooms across the world. Technology allows us to create and share content with a new ease. It cannot and does not replace the physical, personal and emotional journeys that lie at the centre of our work. This new emphasis on digital literacy in education must remember that young people still need to communicate and learn about ‘something’. My favourite example of innovation in ICT was the example of a school a few years ago now that had scrapped ICT classes completely and instead taught the Citizenship curriculum full-time, using ICT as a tool to support and extend the development of young people as engaged citizens. Now there’s an idea.

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