From east to west

7th January 2005 at 00:00
Director of BESA Ray Barker casts an eye over the latest ICT developments in the US and Japan.

I've been lucky enough to take technology companies to the US and Japan over the past few months and it's fascinating to see how both countries are putting their faith in ICT to transform education and their societies. They are both facing the same issue however - and maybe this is the same for us.

The approach they are taking is fairly "closed" and mechanistic - assessment and standards-driven. This clashes with their desire to create citizens for the "knowledge economy" where young people are going to have to be creative, adaptable and open to new ways of learning.

The big topic in the US is George Bush's "No Child Left Behind" policy. The watchwords are "100 per cent of children passing 100 per cent of tests 100 per cent of the time" - all within 14 years. This has made assessment key to all activities. Most testing is multiple-choice and learning is broken down into tiny areas that can be assessed and tracked. There is tension among US teachers who know what they have to do to meet State and federal guidelines - but they don't like it much.

Here's where the creative companies stood out. The visual arts and film-making are much more common than in the UK. See www.animaction.com to see how young children are offered a simple solution to make animated films, used in a variety of ways in school - not just to teach reading and writing or maths. But the most exciting thing to emerge is "Smartpaper" technology - see www.smartpaper.net and www.touchsmart.net - a prototype new textbook publishing method that uses infrared or wireless technology to combine traditional books with digital content. It offers a real, interactive solution to "blended learning". By touching a picture or text, the book calls up multimedia content by sending an infrared signal to a nearby internet-connected computerDVD player TV. The book becomes a remote-control.

Japan is the second-largest world economy after the US. But in education terms it is a worried country. It traditionally has a highly regulated education system based upon Confucian lines. But there is pressure to change. ICT is now seen as a solution to the tensions in society and in the requirements of a changing education system, and they are looking to the UK for the answer. They want new, exploratory approaches (young people being creative, not afraid of making mistakes) which are quite opposite to the Japanese culture of not losing face. So there is still a long way to go.

There is a big interest in interactive whiteboards; they only use a version of a whiteboard from the US at the moment with limited interactivity.

Creative software is limited, however. Astroarts is developing astronomy software for schools. Stella Navigator computes and simulates star charts, using a joystick and a game pad to take pupils through the solar system (www.astroarts.co.jp). Edumart, from Uchida, the biggest educational distributor in Japan, is a content distribution portal, a version of Curriculum Online, containing over 350 items at the moment. Its portal allows teachers to log on to software and buy it for one-fifth of retail price (www.edunet.jp).

How we change from a teacher-centred model to a learner-centred model is the real challenge. Schools are moving fast towards this, but maybe we need to learn something from our friends overseas who cannot move any faster unless they are given more freedom to experiment and innovate.

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