Breaking down the ICT barriers

6th October 2000 at 01:00
Are we going too far too quickly with computer technology? Are ministers doing enough to help teachers embrace it? Gillian Macdonald reports on Fusion 2000

There is not enough money for school buildings, teaching programmes, the arts, physical education or teachers, and to spend money on computers before those things is "absolutely criminal", argues Todd Oppenheimer, the American journalist and author of Computer Delusion. Computer programmers aged 35 are doing fine, he says, because their math training was rigorous.

Oppenheimer was speaking in the opening debate at last week's Fusion 2000 conference, organised by Learning and Teaching Scotland at the Scottish Exhibition and Conference Centre in Glasgow. The theme of the conference was "Learning without walls"; the premise of debate was "By the year 2010 people will use technology, rather than institutions, to access learning".

Speaking against him was Professor Stephen Heppell, head of the Ultralab research centre at Anglia Polytechnic University and an ardent advocate of education without the structures and timetables of the Fifties.

"If we waited till schools were fully funded before we made progress, we'd still be writing with quills," he argued. "I don't believe the progress we're claiming is anything like we could be claiming. Kids go rushing past when you allow them the space and opportunity." And he cited examples of excluded pupils being helped through online schooling.

But the two men were not quite on opposite sides of the fence, as Heppell told Oppenheimer: "You're saying pull the plug. I'm saying allow the good stuff through," and Oppenheimer responded: "I'm not for pulling the plug, I'm for slowing down. As soon as teachers get used to yesterday's machine, there's a new one there."

Both men agreed there was good and bad in what children were producing with information and communications technology on both sides of the Atlantic, Oppenheimer telling of Power Point Presentations in modern studies classes in Massachussets, where he said "60 per cent of the time was spent mastering graphics as opposed to content", while Heppell cited fair copies of essays still being typed up to adorn walls for parents' evenings. "We're moving so fast that teachers are our only hope," said Heppell.

One problem, raised frequently, was how to measure the gains from ICT. Heppell suggested doing action research, finding schools delivering certainty in their exam grades - straight As or straight Cs - and asking them to teach a bit of the curriculum only with a computer and comparing achievements against a baseline of certainty of past performances. "This needs to be done urgently," he said.

Good innovative work was illustrated by Dr Alan Kay of Walt Disney Imagineering, who invented the laptop computer. Demonstrating a mathematics program he had designed, he showed how children could use it to draw a robot car and put in their own lines of script to get it moving. "It's a tronger way of getting people into the thought patterns of the 21st century than accounting arithmetic, which frightens most people off math. Most kids were not interested in the abstractions, but were interested in driving the car."

The virtues of ICT were illustrated by Malcolm Buckby, minister for education in South Australia, where 900 schools are now online using the fastest Internet speed in Australia. He described how fibre optics and online access were transforming the lives of isolated pupils in the outback. Two children, Sam and Catriona, who live on cattle stations 200km apart and communicate with their teachers by telephone conferencing and fax, produced the winning entry for web pages, beating thousands of students. Their school is awaiting Internet access.

In Adelaide the Technology School of the Future is the largest government provider of hands-on teacher training, with student programmes during and after school, multimedia training and sound production included. Scotland has been working closely with South Australia, with exchange visits between the countries.

Peter Peacock, Scotland's deputy minister for children and education and chair of Digital Scotland, warned of the dangers of going too far too quickly and of underestimating ICT's impact on the learning process. "The impact of ICT on our education system is potentially the most radical to face any education system for a century or more," he said. It has the potential to individualise learning at a place, time, pace and style that suits the learner.

"What will our schools in future look like? Will we have schools in the future? The Scottish Executive is beginning to look at those questions, and at the structure of the school day and school year. We're gearing up to exploit ICT across all sectors of education."

But however much the policy makers promised for a high-tech future, the teachers on whom it all depends were unhappy about the level of support.

"To be giving pound;200 (towards purchasing a laptop computer) to teachers who are already poorly paid and expect them to spend pound;800 to pound;1,000 of their own money is an absolute piece of nonsense," said Sandra West, headteacher of Sunnyside Primary in Glasgow.

"Training is skimmed over as if it is the least of our worries. Well, it's the greatest of our worries. We're going to be internetted up to our armpits, but are we going to have skills to access this? No. When is training to be done? Who's going to do it? Is it being built into teachers' contracts? And, teachers have to have a life."

HM inspector Stuart Robertson tried to reassure her. "There is training and there is money - pound;230 million for the UK, pound;23 million for Scotland. There's a training model and within it some pound;450 per teacher. It's a damn sight better than five years ago.

"Looking at how to incorporate ICT training within professional development and in existing structures is up to the local authorities," he added.

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