Is the curriculum offline?

10th March 2006 at 00:00
Brian Kerslake asks whether we have really made much progress in educational ICT, and whether some of the latest trends are misguided

I've been developing educational software for more than 20 years and have reached the point - maybe it's my age - where I have to ask: "Is ICT in schools going backwards?" There are a number of developments in ICT that leave me feeling puzzled and perplexed, wondering what has happened to the vast amount of money that has been spent on hardware and software.

Let's start with the trend of the last few years - the rise of interactive whiteboards. Are they a way of saying that mixed ability teaching, individualised learning and personalised learning are all wrong? Are they being used as a tool to force the end of pupil-centred teaching and a return to the whole-class teaching of the last century? Most often they seem to be used as nothing more than expensive projector screens - with a teacher standing in front of the classroom and telling the class what to do. Is this progress?

And what about online learning? I recall when Curriculum Online first appeared, software publishers were encouraged to embrace a new era of distribution and put all their products online. But we held back and I'm glad that we did in view of how little is being spent on online software compared with physical versions.

I also think that Curriculum Online has encouraged some publishers to spread their wares too thinly, producing packs for, say, key stage 2 geography, followed by similar packs for KS3 and 4. It's a quick and easy way to get more products on to Curriculum Online, but it means software is less flexible because fewer products now offer key stage options.

More than pound;20 million has been spent by schools on subscription services, but now many of these providers are moving their wares on to CD-Rom. This either says schools aren't ready for online learning, or that much of what is out there is no more than eye candy. From what I've seen, it's just fancy graphics and sounds bolted on to easy-to-produce learning activities that publishers like us were doing on BBC Micros 20 years ago.

And what about the next flavour of the month - learning platforms (also called virtual learning environments or VLEs)? Isn't that just a fancy name for a library of resources? What you find on the typical platform are worksheets and maybe some old bits of software or a video library. It seems to be the next big thing after interactive whiteboards and I can't see why.

Twenty years on, with a number of schools and teachers still struggling to get basic ICT into their classrooms, why make them feel even more guilty by "bigging up" learning platforms? Why not just let things bed down as they are for a few years?

A recent survey suggests that 25 per cent of computers in classrooms are ineffective for teaching the curriculum. Could it be that some of the software suppliers that have jumped on the electronic learning credits bandwagon haven't taken account of the wide range of hardware in schools?

On my occasional visits to schools I still see computers switched on, but doing nothing. So are computers really being used effectively? I suppose banks of glowing computer screens impress the visitors.

Talking of ICT suites, we still seem to be tackling the issue of whether we should have computers in classrooms or in ICT suites. I can't see why there is still a debate over this, because you only need to look at what happens in real life to see how we should be using computers in schools. If you were to visit a big company - let's say BT, for example - you wouldn't find the staff going off to a computer lab whenever they need to use a computer.

The computers are on desks, ready to be used at any time, and that's how it should be in schools. Technology should be integrated in the classroom; it should be as natural as reaching for a pen and paper.

And what about improving the quality of advice teachers get about educational ICT? Some of the conclusions that I have seen from so-called eminent bodies lead me to wonder why they bother. One recently came up with the earth-shattering conclusion that the growth in use of interactive whiteboards was closely matched to the growth in use of digital projectors! Anyone with half a brain could have reached that conclusion without months of consultation and consideration.

I find it amazing that 20 years on, ICT and teacher training is still a big issue. Why hasn't it been resolved and why are we still seeing declining advisory teams? It's obvious from official reports that one of the hoped-for outcomes of BBC Jam is to get teachers using technology that many of them are still wary of. What teachers need is face-to-face contact with people who know kids, know the local area and know what the issues are - in a word, advisers. The internet and CD-Roms are wonderful media, but neither they, nor BBC Jam, offer a quick and easy fix to the challenges we face, and nor are they necessarily cheap options.

ICT can and does make a big difference in education, but that's not to say that progress in educational ICT has been as good as it could and should be. We need to ask ourselves: are we making the most of this fantastic tool that can inspire teachers and students and transform teaching and learning? Or are we just carrying out another public relations and marketing makeover?

Brian Kerslake, managing director of Topologika Software (www.topologika.co.uk) and a former teacher, was talking to George Cole

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