Any computer bought recently enables you to talk to and phone people across the world, run films, record and edit sound, edit video and images, synthesise and sequence sound. If you're lucky, you can even talk into it and see your words produced as text. You can link pages and ideas with other pages and ideas and publish your work across the world, share files, play games, and make radio programmes. You can access great literature, store books, music and sounds and link all these together in multimedia form. And you can re-purpose any of that information.
All that is impressive, but the most powerful avenue is the enhancement of the writing process, and editing in particular. Why, then, in most schools, are English teachers the most reluctant members of their profession to use ICT in their classrooms? Many will tell you it is mainly because they cannot obtain reasonable access for their students. A couple of years ago, the "embedding" agenda looked as though it might change all that. Like a great many of these initiatives, this one, to embed ICT in subject teaching, was announced with a flourish and quickly forgotten - and most English teachers weren't even aware of it.
It also came at a time when people responsible for the strategies were telling teachers that ICT should be taught discretely. Ofsted was discreetly carrying the same message. The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority and the exam boards were offering English syllabuses that could be completed without ICT. "Why bother with ICT when we are judged on exam results?" was the understandable response of English teachers.
English syllabuses, frozen for nearly a decade, could be about to change as boards take up the challenges offered by the QCA and the new thinking stimulated by its English 21 initiatives (www.qca.org.uk11775.html).
ICT for schools can raise some fundamental issues about pedagogy, staff training and continuing professional development. There is also a learning culture issue. The placement of learning tools as crucial as computers should not be left to the IT people in schools. After all, their efforts have earned the dubious distinction of making ICT one of the worst-taught subjects in the national curriculum. Shouldn't decisions as crucial as the location of computers come out of an authentic whole-staff debate about how ICT should be integrated into the teaching and learning of a school? Just to impose a suite, or to insist that computers should go into classrooms, would be disastrous if there was not a consensus on strategy. Would you put all the pens and pencils in one room and restrict access to once or twice a week?
ICT has to be taught in context. In one anecdote, an inspector goes into the English department in a school and says: "I would like to see how you use ICT in English." The head of English says: "We are not allowed to teach with ICT, that is the role of the ICT people. You will have to see the head of ICT." The head of ICT says: "That will be fine. I am doing an English lesson this afternoon." "What will you be covering?" asks the inspector.
"Let me see," says the head of ICT. "It's week 7; that'll be 'left indent'."
There are solutions. One college has taken GCSE ICT off the day-time timetable. Students who want to study ICT are asked to work at the end of the school day. The precious resource is freed up and the numbers taking ICT have increased -and subjects like English, foreign languages, geography and history can now get access.
Although the embedding agenda might have had very limited success, I hope this will not be the case with Edexcel's pilot scheme for GCSE English, which started in September and involves 100 schools and around 10,000 students. It is dependent on teachers having more access to ICT and points the way to the future. Modules such as "The Language of Digital Communications" and "The Moving Image" look at the way technology affects language. Progress will be care-fully watched by all English teachers.
Professor John Naughton of the Open University wrote recently: "One of the problems with ICT teaching in British schools is its obsession with training kids to use Microsoft packages rather than exploring the revolutionary potential of computers for learning and living. Every time I ask a tech-savvy boy or girl about their experiences of ICT at school, I hear derisive accounts of unimaginative drudgery involving Excel, Word or PowerPoint." Imaginative subject teachers using ICT in context could change all that for the good of students and for their learning.
* Jack Kenny is chair of English examiners at Edexcel Email: email@example.com