Research, hosted by Nesta Futurelab, is challenging the way we should be thinking about computers in schools, writes Arnold Evans
Ever since Pacman gobbled his first power pill, academics have been trying to assess the educational potential of new technology. Their findings are usually confined to arcane little journals read only by other researchers and their mums. It's a shame. The community that has most to gain from this research consists of those practising teachers who not only want to use ICT in their lessons but also need the hard evidence that might justify its place in the curriculum.
Rather than plough through the growing body of research, teachers can visit the website hosted by Nesta Futurelab, a lottery funded agency dedicated to establishing digital learning at the heart of education. Here they'll find the first four in a series of essays in which leading academics review current research into the role of new technology in schools and make a few cautious suggestions of how better use could be made of it.
It's something of a relief to discover that researchers don't share the government's confidence that ICT will somehow act as efficaciously as Sooty's Oofle Dust and - with an izzy-wizzy-let's-get-busy - work its magic in the classroom. What's required, it seems, isn't more technology but a radical reappraisal of the way in which it's being used.
In her essay, Dr Avril Loveless cites scores of initiatives conducted in British schools (and monitored by researchers) that demonstrate how even bog-standard computers can offer limitless opportunities to develop pupils'
creativity in the arts. More significantly, she goes on to show how ICT could nurture that same level of creativity in other areas of the curriculum.
In a nutshell: the computer aids creativity because of that Delete key which is every bit as potent as Oofle Dust. It frees children's creative spirit by giving them the luxury of being able to make mistakes without being laughed at or tut-tutted. They can take outrageous intellectual risks, play around with ideas, experiment, polish and re-polish, never having to make do with their first attempts.
In reality, it's never quite that easy. The problem doesn't lie in the technology but in the ethos of the typical school. A rigid timetable, with its discrete subject areas and prescribed lesson times, doesn't lend itself to a creative approach to learning. Anyway, busy teachers have enough on their plates having to frog-march their classes through the national curriculum.
And the four authors are agreed that when pupils do make good use of ICT, it's always the teacher and not the technology that makes the crucial difference. As Rupert Wegerif explains in his report, programming, thought-mapping, simulations and other mind tools can play a part in helping pupils develop thinking skills but "a review of the evidence suggests that using technology does not, by itself, lead to transferable thinking skills. The success of the activity crucially depends on how the technology is used. Much depends on the role of the teacher."
It was ever thus. The modern languages teacher has to cope with another problem. As Dr Jim Milton explains, research shows, even without ICT, that there's no single "right way" to teach a language as different pupils respond differently to the various approaches. It follows, then, that no single digital resource will be suitable for every pupil in a class - whatever it says on the package. There are plenty of ingenious programs on the market, but Dr Milton warns that "they are technology-led rather than pedagogy-led. The materials often use a clever piece of technology because it can be done, rather than because it enables the learner to enhance or use their language knowledge".
Dr Neil Selwyn is also cautious about putting too much faith in new technology. "Citizenship education," he says, "is an area of the curriculum that's ripe for the misapplication of ICT - as a quick fix to a new and ill-defined area of education." Keeping a class busy with a CD-Rom or website that has "Citizenship" in the title is not a way of teaching the subject, but of avoiding having to do so.
Indeed the research community seems to be in general agreement that new technology is at its least effective when it is merely delivering information. The computer can offer children access to vast databases of knowledge, but that doesn't necessarily guarantee that they'll learn anything. Dr Milton, for example, recognises that in principle it's obviously valuable for students to be able to study online material in another language but it becomes positively counter productive if pupils find it boring or too hard to understand.
So, if new technology can't earn its keep as "the font of all knowledge", what is it good for? Researchers can answer this question and - surprisingly - they are all, more or less, singing from the same hymn sheet.
They agree that ICT is most effective when it stimulates debate, promotes creativity and puts the learner squarely in the driving seat. Furthermore, there is general agreement that teachers need the kind of imaginative in-service training, that will help them to appreciate how ICT can transform the classroom experiences for their pupils.
Of course, many teachers already understand this and - often unnoticed by the academics - are blazing the trail. Their insights would be invaluable to others in the profession - and to the software developers. They should find the time to get in touch with Nesta Futurelabs, which was created to link educational expertise and creative talent (see page 12).
Creativity, Digital Technologies and Learning by Dr Avril Loveless, Brighton University
Thinking Skills, Digital Technologies and Learning by Dr Rupert Wegerif, Open University
Citizenship, Digital Technologies and Learning by Dr Neil Selwyn, Cardiff University
Languages, Technologies and Learning by Dr Jim Milton, Swansea University A report on Science is due to be published in January 2004.
The reports are available free in PDF format at www.nestafuturelab.org
Hard copies cost pound;25 each, and are available from Nesta Futurelab, 1 Canons Road, Harbourside, Bristol,BS1 5UH