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Literacy is a crucial strand of the Web;Platform;Opinion

The use of information technology is being ignored in the drive to raise achievement, warns Anne Bruce.

THE RECENT publicity surrounding the nomination of a novel published on the Internet for the Booker Prize has underlined a common prejudice in literary circles - that computers and literacy are mutually exclusive, and that the "anoraks" who inhabit the domains of the Internet are sad, semi-literate freaks. Once again, what is new and different and not easily understood is dismissed as "culturally inferior".

Education is often guilty of the same academic snobbery. Despite all the hype given to a few pilot schemes in schools, and the efforts of a few enthusiasts, computers and the Internet have not had the impact in the classroom that they should. Indeed, as far as aiding literacy and supporting learning are concerned, we have come hardly any distance at all. Integrated learning systems, which have demonstrably improved children's basic skills in school trials, are ignored because they are too costly to sustain. And this is the case despite all of the current interest in "back to basics".

Use of the Internet in schools has focused on a perception of the service as an "information factory", allowing access to up-to-date information and resources, and an extended reference library, essentially passive rather than interactive. The same applies to the use of multimedia applications on CD-Rom: even where available and accessible to pupils, time for their use is restricted, and there is a concentration on knowledge-based examples.

This situation prevails despite collaboration on writing by pupils in schools which were scattered geographically. The use of e-mail in international projects also encouraged literary skills, and gave impetus and motivation to the writing of reports and letters "all about me".

Much of the attention paid to the Internet by educators has emphasised the negative aspects - the inappropriateness of some materials, copyright issues (the concepts of freeware, shareware and, heavens above, "niceware", are totally alien to the mindset of many administrators in education), and the recently highlighted encouragement of plagiarism by the alleged availability of reviews of personal reading in English and Standard grade investigations. (This is surely something of a red herring since it is certainly nothing new.) Such misconceptions demonstrate the suspicious attitudes of academics towards the world of ICT (information and communications technology), and the lingering prejudice that the products of computers and word-processors, however literary or artistic, are somehow second-rate.

The weight of research evidence now clearly shows that there can be significant improvement in literacy levels of pupils given regular access to word-processing tools and communications technology. Research being done in this area - by Exeter University, among others - has demonstrated improvements in reading and writing abilities, and these findings have particular relevance in today's climate of "raising achievement". Indeed, the traditionally greater interest by boys in all things technological could provide the key to improving their literacy levels. In Norway, boys' improved performance in English has been attributed to the fact that it is the language of the Internet.

While there has been a concentration on supported study initiatives to address problems of underachievement, particularly in areas of urban deprivation, little has been done to link this with the proven powers of technology to raise literacy levels and improve basic reading and writing skills. This is surprising, given that such aids to learning could transform the learning experience of many young people.

However, we still are faced with a situation in schools where there is a lack of awareness and skills among the majority of subject specialists across the secondary curriculum, and a lack of access to computers in the classroom so that pupils can use, enhance and improve their reading and writing skills in a motivating and meaningful way.

Language across the curriculum is as relevant as ever, but should now move on to embrace the ICT tools that can support language learning and communication ability. Indeed, the locus of IT in schools, now that the communications element has become so important, could profitably shift to language, with more input from English and modern languages departments.

Unfortunately, despite such initiatives as UK Net Year (1998 - would anyone in Scottish schools notice?) and the ambitious, some might say unrealistic, programme of the National Grid for Learning, we are still far from having achieved a basic, adequate level of ICT provision in our schools. The problem is not simply about providing equipment, but about ensuring that it is constantly upgraded. The urgent challenge is not simply the provision of hardware and software, or even ensuring that teachers have the confidence and skill to use these, but to embed ICT within the school curriculum, across all subjects - not as an add-on but as a basic and necessary ingredient.

With the demise of the technical and vocational education initiative and the fragmentation of local authorities, who can provide an overview and impetus to change? Too many developments are piecemeal and isolated. There is still a need for umbrella organisations and initiatives to make the connections, to link up the ideas, to make sure that all of the pieces of the jigsaw fit into place.

Anne Bruce, an English teacher, was seconded for two years to the Scottish Council for Educational Technology. She is now depute headteacher at Rosehall High School, Coatbridge, but writes here in a personal capacity. Use of the Internet will feature in North Lanarkshire's Raising Achievement summer school for pupils.

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