Jack Kenny reports on a conference called by the School Curriculum Assessment Authority to look at the increasing importance of IT. Information technology knowledge has a half-life of only 18 months at the most," one speaker argued. The implication of that startling assertion was one of the factors that impelled the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority to organise a conference to look at the implications for IT in the national curriculum last week.
The word curriculum, so we were told, is derived from the Latin for small racetrack. No Roman, however, could have guessed at the speed of IT in the national curriculum race. The conference, billed as "Information Technology, Communications and the Future Curriculum", was "an opportunity to inform strategic thinking regarding the demands and opportunities presented by new technologies".
SCAA has many questions. What are the skills, knowledge and understanding required by the new technologies? Can we construct a curriculum that is based on enduring principles? How can SCAA ensure that future work programmes and priorities are soundly based? What will alter during the five-year moratorium on change? How do we retain IT as a tool for problem solving, not just communicating?
Margaret Bell of the National Council for Educational Technology (NCET) is sure that the initial impact of computers will pale into insignificance compared with what is about to happen with communications. The research data that she presented about the way that IT develops motivation was compelling because motivation will be vitally important in a society where learning will be one of the largest industries and where it is imperative that we educate more people to a higher level.
Chris Yapp of ICL pointed out that there is time to prepare, and that the change will be a gradual process, probably over 15 to 20 years. Gabriel Goldstein, from the Office for Standards in Education, with his detailed knowledge of school inspections, urged realism: "Any curriculum must be rooted in where schools are." He also identified the progressive weakening of the support networks that teachers have relied on in the past as a barrier to progress.
More than one speaker pointed out the paradox at the heart of IT in education. The pressure is on teachers and schools to work in traditional ways - just the kind of system that will not allow IT to flourish. Chris Abbott, of King's College, London, seemed to offer a partial solution by pointing out that the Internet, at the moment a world of words, could assist the teaching of traditional literacy with its role as a publishing medium - for example, it contains information on just about every book ever written, and often the texts themselves.
Terms such as "a renaissance of writing" set up resonances in minds which hitherto had seemed to see little but trivia and sleaze in the information technologies.
Racetracks search out winners and losers, and the complexities of assessment were never far from the surface. The use of information technology in learning presents difficult problems to examination boards and it was recognised that unless syllabuses at key stage 4 begin to insist that a great deal of work could and should be done with IT-rich resources, it will create a curriculum at key stages 3 and 4 that will ensure that schools are not in harmony with the home, the workplace and the wider world.
There was a great deal of praise for SCAA for providing the forum to instigate this thinking and hope that the work it has started will continue and permeate other areas of the curriculum. Nick Tate, SCAA chief executive obviously realises the power of IT, although he senses that it cannot be ignored, he appears concerned that it could be difficult to control. "I do not trust some of these visions," he said, referring in particular to speculation from BT's Bruce Bond. "How do we ensure there is a common core to produce citizens? The book must be at the heart of our culture. We must preserve the distinctive culture of this country."
It was a pity, as one delegate observed, "that he had to include in his closing remarks to the conference sentiments about self management and Christianity, preserving the culture and saving the book. Underneath it all is a barely concealed distaste for the modern media and what is beginning to sound like an establishment anthem."
Whether they like it or not, teachers and educationists are compelled to enter this particular race. As one speaker said: "The prizes are improved access to learning, citizens who are learners and the creation of a real culture. The UK is the only Group of Seven nation to have defined IT as central and integral to the curriculum. We have to realise that education is not about becoming qualified but remaining qualified."
SCAA will publish a full report of the proceedings