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The demands on "ICT"

Gareth Mills raises concerns about the interpretations ascribed to three little letters

Apparently, it's an urban myth that eskimos have hundreds of different words for snow (see www.public. iastate.eduhoneylderridaeskimos.html).

I was vaguely disappointed to be disabused of this notion. I liked the idea that nuances in our environment could stimulate our imaginations to create a whole lexicon of related words.

This was to be the basis of my ICT word-search challenge, for I am becoming concerned about the demands we're making on three letters: ICT. The meaning of this acronym has grown to embrace a whole variety of interpretations.

It's possible to hold a discussion about ICT only to find, usually towards the end, that you've been talking about different things.

I propose that we devise some new words. What aspects of ICT might these relate to?

First, we need to get a better word for the technology itself. This is the ICT that's about the kit and cables, processor speeds and XP-compatible plug-ins. Kit talk always has the capacity to make you feel inadequate: your equipment is too slow, too old or too small. And it can be confusing.

I don't worry about the details of central heating systems - I just want a warm room.

Talk about ICT is increasingly embracing the idea of technology as a tool for teaching. Whiteboards and projectors are offering new ways to engage and motivate pupils. So we find ourselves talking about a branch of ICT that's about all those hybrids that seem to begin with lower case "e-" or end with "online": e-learning, e-assessment and curriculum online among others.

We also need a new word for the aspect of ICT that's about the techniques of driving software. We're all busy collecting stamps in our ICT album of software skills. I have cut, paste and copy. Could I swap you for mail-merge? Unless you have a reason to use these techniques regularly, they're as easy to forget as to remember. This, of course, is why the help menu was invented!

Finally, there is the ICT that is a subject in the national curriculum.

This is the ICT that's about developing the capability to find, select, use, develop and share information in a purposeful way, using technology.

This is the ICT that embraces cognitive skills as well as technical skills, that is as much about information and communication as technology. It is a capability, like literacy and numeracy, that is increasingly essential in our everyday lives and, for me, it is the ICT that mustn't be lost in the general hubbub.

In seeking to describe ICT in this way, I believe that our national curriculum has been particularly forward-thinking. There's a growing recognition that ICT cannot be defined as simply a laundry list of technical skills. There is an emerging concept of "ICT literacy" that emphasises the need to move beyond purely functional definitions. This is a global trend.

The European Union recognised the "long term strategic need to focus on higher order digital literacy skills as well as basic ICT competences" at the most recent e-Learning summit. The European Commission's action plan identifies e-Learning as critical to Europe's success in a knowledge-driven global economy and recommends that we develop and promote "digital literacy". Most recently, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, through its Programme for International Student Assessment project, concluded that: "ICT literacy cannot be defined primarily as the mastery of technical skillsI the concept of ICT literacy should be broadened to include cognitive skills including critical thinking and problem solving." Six processes were identified as critical components of ICT literacy. This list reflects the belief that ICT is about information gathering, knowledge construction and communication. As such, these processes reflect the integration of technical knowledge and skills with more traditional cognitive skills.

In 2006, as part of the PISA project, international comparisons in ICT will be made and the yardstick will be pupils' ability to use technology to "access, manage, integrate and evaluate information, construct new knowledge, and communicate with others".

If we are to realise the benefits of new e-learning opportunities, then we must continue to promote ICT literacy in the broadest sense. To ensure that our students can participate fully in an e-driven world, we must make certain that they have the capability to use technological tools purposefully to problem-solve, to analyse and interpret, to develop ideas, to test hypotheses and to be creative.

In all the hullabaloo and evangelising that surrounds ICT, and the new interpretations that we ascribe to those three little letters, let's hope we don't lose our focus on the importance of ICT capability. It is estimated that Shakespeare brought more than 1,700 words into the English language, including rant, pedant and clanger. Perhaps we can devise a few more to bring clarity to different aspects of ICT. I'll propose ICT literacy for a starter. Other views and ideas to, but please, from you techie types, no more TLAs (three-letter acronyms).

Gareth Mills is principal consultant for ICT at the QCA

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