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ICT is not an optuonal extra

TES keynote speaker at BETT 2003 Marian Brooks says ICT should be used to create new learning experiences in school

Today's children have resources and tools that can expand their learning horizons far beyond anything we could have dreamt of even five years ago. They have multimedia PCs, the internet and amazing software that can open up new pathways to learning. But is this happening? Sadly, our entire approach to ICT has been based on skills rather than learning. There's a feeling that as long as a particular ICT skill is being used in a lesson then that's fine, even if it isn't making a useful contribution to a child's learning. The danger is that not only are we failing to exploit ICT's potential in the classroom, but we also risk undermining the importance of it through the children's eyes.

We teach ICT as a separate subject, but when children go into other subject areas, we don't exploit the ICT skills they've acquired. We don't see how ICT can be used for new ways of learning. It's seen as something you teach to pass an exam rather than as a valuable component of a learning experience.

ICT simply isn't being taken seriously as a learning tool. Take multimedia. We know pupils enjoy using it because it addresses their own learning style. Yet we assume it is about being flash or part of youth culture, but it's more profound than that. It's ironic that the one area of the curriculum where multimedia is often used as part of the learning experience is in special needs, the implication being you only need it if you can't cope with orthodox learning methods. But if its effective with special needs, why isn't it being used by all children?

Another problem is that the examination system ignores ICT. When you sit an exam, can you respond using ICT? Can you draw or calculate with it? ICT is not a core activity. It's not a channel for expressing what you've learnt or created. So it's no surprise that some teachers see little value in using it in the classroom.

By relying on assessment structures that emphasise only written channels of response, there's a danger we will fail to see the capacity for ICT to be used creatively by children. Look at digital video and editing, which allows children to be creative, imaginative and collaborative, where they get to use a host of skills - and not just how to use the equipment, but also the ability to sequence events, convey subtle and effective messages, and describe emotion and meaning. Yet we don't have an examination system that recognises the potential of digital video as a learning and creative tool. Instead, we devote hours of teaching time to showing children how to do handwriting. In doing so, we are dismissing a set of skills that are required for today's world of work and, in the process, do our students a grave disservice.

Adults often perceive the use of ICT by children as trivial or disconnected from cognitive capacity, dismissing high-level skills as superficial activities. When children zap through screens of information, it appears as though they are simply skimming through pages on a screen. In fact, they are assessing information at a pace far faster than adults can. This capacity to search and access information is important in today's world of work, but it's a skill that many tend to ignore.

There's a buzz surrounding Curriculum Online, the new education portal that will showcase ICT resources. But I'm worried it will make teachers feel they can fulfil the expectations of ICT in their teaching by simply tapping into it. They may get the idea that they can cut-and-paste materials from here and there and that's it. But it's not fundamental enough. I don't think sufficient thought goes into analysing the learning objectives of ICT. Why are some parts more engaging than others and which challenge children to go forward?

There is a clear opportunity for input from the Department of Trade and Industry's Innovations Unit to create a greater understanding and awareness of how ICT can play a full role in the planning, execution and assessment of learning. We need to see how ICT can develop new opportunities that tap into our growing understanding of how learning happens. We also need to support teachers to use a variety of ICT skills to extend and support the teaching strategies that many have understood for some time, but have so far never had the incentive to develop. No one would view reading or writing as optional extras and it's time we had that same attitude towards ICT in the classroom.

Marian Brooks is a former head of Cranford Community College and is now director of school improvement for Cambridge Education Associates (CEA), a leading education services company that works with the DFES, Ofsted, LEAs and many other agencies. She was talking to George Cole.

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