A trip to the United States has convinced Iain Whyte that computers are only as good as the teachers who will be using them
There is a great deal of debate about the use of computers in schools. Little definitive research seems to have been done on the effects on learning, however, and educationists are divided over the possible costs and benefits.
Against this background I spent a week on a study visit to the United States in a delegation that included Edinburgh's Labour executive member for education, two headteachers and a senior council official. As an opposition councillor, I was the group's sceptic among those who had publicly declared a desire to provide "a laptop for every child".
The first part of the trip involved a briefing at Apple's headquarters in California, followed by a visit to Maine, where Governor Angus King has spearheaded a programme to provide a notebook computer for a whole year group of some 36,000 pupils throughout the state.
Apple was obviously keen to sell the benefits of mass computer implementation, its own equipment and educational expertise. However, what became clear was that the type of computer was far less important than the teaching methods. Among the potential benefits highlighted were improved access to wider information, far more collaborative styles of learning, and learning at the pace of the individual.
There will be little new in these ideas for those who have already looked at the use of school computers in Scotland. The quantum leap we are now being asked to consider comes for Edinburgh with dedicated one-to-one access to notebook computers for pupils for all their school subjects.
The question for many traditionalists is when does learning in this way become a game? The theory is that with routine use of multimedia technology, children become more engaged in their learning. They become better at acquiring basic skills as they are more engaged, they become technology-proficient with transferable skills ready for the modern world of work, they become literate in evaluating a wealth of information, and they gain a much greater sense of self as they increase their own esteem.
There is no doubt that the systems we looked at in Maine already show some genuine benefits for schools in terms of pupil interest. Attendance was up, disciplinary incidents had fallen dramatically and suspensions and expulsions were far less likely but figures for attainment are not yet available. The point for many is that engaging children, particularly those most likely to drop out of school, will provide benefits greatest for those most in need.
We were also shown examples of attainment improvements where teachers had adopted new methods using technology to enhance their teaching style. But the suspicion remains that the real benefits come from excellent, enthusiastic teaching.
Some potential benefits remain to be proven and more data is required. My conclusion was that if we choose to believe the increasing body of evidence in favour of one-to-one schemes we must measure them carefully as we implement them. Edinburgh would need robust baseline data, with appropriate measurement and appraisal of the scheme and the changes that teachers had made to adapt to it.
Teachers will not just have to be computer-literate but will need to change their teaching methods to benefit. Pupil interaction in small groups appears to be enhanced and this had potential benefits for pupils in expressing themselves using media such as video and sound. The buzz phrase among my teacher colleagues during the trip was a changing pedagogy.
There is an interesting difference between the attitudes of entrenched sceptics in Scotland and those described to us by Governer King. He fought those who felt that computers for all meant a toy and a give-away of taxpayers' money and those who asked "Why should we be first?"
That attitude has been evident in Edinburgh but was down a list of concerns behind those who said "we gave kids calculators and now they can't count. Why don't we teach them to read, write and count instead?"
ther concerns centre on security, theft and vandalism. Having visited Maine, I am content that the technology can prevent the notebooks being used as games machines and can make them virtually worthless to a thief. There were no reports of malicious damage, and insurance schemes and student interest mean that this is unlikely.
I believe we should teach the educational basics in early primary while also using computers as appropriate. For the time being at least, any thoughts of one to one implementation should be from primary six or seven upwards. Through early intervention, Scotland has recognised that children still need to know the basics.
The greatest potential is that students learn new transferable skills that allow them to improve their interest and attainment in school. Those skills should be able to be carried forward into their future working lives and could be incredibly valuable in Edinburgh's knowledge-based economy. This could make them more confident, able and employable in a skills-based world.
I remain a sceptic over a number of issues. Can we get some more robust baseline data on attainment soon? How can we pay for this? Most importantly, will our teachers be enthused enough to want to adapt quickly to new methods? We must now engage in this debate and the city's education officials have to come up with decent answers if we are to proceed.
For today's students it is not about learning through computers, it is about learning the skills to allow them to adapt to new media and systems throughout their lives.
Iain Whyte is Conservative leader on Edinburgh City Council.