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Back to basics?

When Nick Tate, chief executive of the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority (SCAA) sounded off recently about the dangers of American software, his remarks probably went down well with people who know very little about information technology and with publishers of the John Bull variety. As speeches on the "swamping our culture" theme go, it was depressingly predictable.

What IT observers would like to have heard was something positive - like what SCAA has done, or plans to do, to stimulate or support educational software. It's not unreasonable; one of the best maths programs, for example, World of Number (New Media), emerged from a Department for Education curriculum software funding programme.

The CD-Rom market is booming and this multimedia technology has matured rapidly, making it popular in schools and homes. But there are problems with CD-Rom and they don't really have much to do with American spellings. The basic conflict is between the demands of the curriculum and those of the market (see opposite page). The schools' market just isn't big enough to warrant massive investment.

The fact remains that there is good UK curriculum software around, and there are some excellent UK publishers, some of whom have taken massive risks (one award-winning disc was funded by the publisher re-mortgaging his home). But it is still relatively expensive to produce a high-quality CD-Rom, and if you were to produce the sort of CD-Rom that Nick Tate would probably like to see, rigidly tied to every key stage and attainment target, it would only ever sell in English schools. You would have trouble selling it in Scotland, never mind the global market that is now opening up through the Internet. For most publishers, the figures for the schools market don't add up to a sufficiently lucrative proposition for major investments.

Fortunately, other UK publishers have followed the lead set by Dorling Kindersley and are prepared to invest in CD-Rom titles. The winner of the annual education award, announced recently by the British Interactive Multimedia Association, was the UK CD-Rom Macbeth, the latest Shakespeare title from HarperCollins and the BBC. Its seamless blend of text, graphics, audio and video is a pleasure to use. And that pleasure adds an awful lot to learning.

The winner of the children's section was a US product, The Logical Journey of the Zoombinis, from Br?derbund Software (see page 33), which appears to have delighted everyone who has come across it. While both these products broadly represent good learning, only an IT-literate teacher could tell you whether they would work in class, and that is because of the demands placed on teachers and students by the curriculum.

The fear that the national curriculum can become a tick list of objectives for teachers is certainly present when it comes to IT. Worried about hitting their targets and what the inspectors from the Office for Standards in Education will say, teachers understandably want publications and software focused clearly on their needs. They don't have the time to browse through a mass of information to find the material suitable for the lesson they are about to give.

Some software publishers are meeting those needs, even coming up with CD-Roms for revision (see page 29), but the equation is simple: the more you tie your product to a particular curriculum, the more you narrow your market.

Competition in the CD-Rom market is intense and now five publishers make up half of it. One of them is the BIMA award winner, Br?derbund (the only other one known in education is Microsoft). When Br?derbund develops a new title, do its authors consider how they can fit it to the English national curriculum? Not likely; and the authors have probably never heard of SCAA.

No, when it comes to the biggest publishers, the most schools can hope for is investment to "localise" for pronunciation and spelling, or for other publishers to produce support materials. Both these developments are happening. Br?derbund's Living Books are emerging with English voices and spellings (see page 36), as are the CDs released by Disney at Christmas. And Microsoft's Encarta now has its own support materialcreated by teachers (see page 39).

Anyone with responsibility for IT and the curriculum should now be looking at ways of supporting teachers, most of whom are not yet experienced enough to be happy using IT in class. In this area, Apple's decision to set up an Apple Classroom of Tomorrow in St Andrew's High School in Kirkcaldy, Scotland, is to be warmly welcomed (see page 22). It's one more step towards establishing what IT teaching methods actually work in class.

But the politicians and the bureaucrats bear the greatest responsibility. Just as politicians have recently noticed that some children are leaving school without some of the basic skills of literacy and numeracy, perhaps they will now discover the open secret that many newly-trained teachers do not know how to include IT in their teaching as required by the curriculum. If these hurdles are tackled in our own back yard, hopefully in the proposed new "teachers' curriculum", the problem of US spellings will be no more than a passing cloud.

In October, the next Computers Update will focus on teacher support and training. Contributions and suggestions to the Computers Editor, The TES, Admiral House, 66-68 East Smithfield, London E1 9XY.

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