Digital challenge must not be left to the geeks

19th April 2013 at 01:00

TESS reporter

Schools and education authorities are legacies of ways we learned in a distant past, built on hierarchies, prescribed subjects and decisions made by cumbersome committee. Digital learning maps out a borderless, fast-changing future; when it infiltrates classrooms, tensions and illogicality abound.

As one example, Scotland's local authorities have largely taken a timorous approach to filtering. Even as YouTube becomes the default search engine for those born after Tony Blair came to power - they prefer visual explanations of difficult concepts - some teachers must present laborious arguments to their bosses each time they want a particular clip unshackled.

But there's a risk of over-simplification. When the spontaneity of digital learning is strangled by old-school red tape, many in local authorities share teachers' frustration. One corporate IT manager tweeted a plea from last month's Learning Through Technology conference (see pages 10-13) for an end to "the them and us".

Who are "them and us"? Digital pioneers on one side and Luddites on the other, some would say. But not all pioneers have the same motivation. Scotland has a vanguard of teachers who see digital learning as a catalyst for the learner-led ethos of Curriculum for Excellence; purveyors of digital gadgetry, spying an opportunity, are clamouring for those teachers' attention.

Apple had a slot at Learning Through Technology, but just as its representative was about to take the podium, we were pulled aside by a member of the conference staff and told Apple would not allow us to report anything she said. (What the sanctions would have been, had we wanted to, remains unclear.) It wasn't a first. When TESS approached senior Apple figure Janet Wozniak at a conference in Edinburgh last year, she told us she did not have clearance for media interviews - only two people in Apple did.

There are plenty of witnesses to the way iPads may boost learning, but Apple is ultimately a mega-corporation. Like any other mega-corporation, as its controlling tendencies suggest, self-interest trumps altruism.

Just as new technology is not in itself a force for good, a love for it does not guarantee great teaching. Some passionate advocates of digital learning tell salutary tales of children handed expensive tablets to watch cartoons and do dot-to-dot puzzles. And it was East Lothian technology specialist David Gilmour, a thoughtful figure on digital learning, who said that schools must look beyond staffroom "geeks" to those who find technology daunting - their talent for teaching must not be left adrift.

Digital learning is not an adjunct to the classroom - it is fast becoming the classroom. Giant IT corporations should not dictate what takes place within it, and neither should the work be left to small bands of enthusiasts. The message from Learning Through Technology is clear: every teacher in Scotland must open up to this brave new world.

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