Embracing a brave new world

12th November 2010 at 00:00
The evolution of ICT in schools is the tale of decades of visionary thinking by dedicated people. But at its heart were those committed to learning, rather than just to computer `gee-whizzery'.

The urge to bring the current wonder of the age into the classroom began long, long before teachers used electronic whiteboards and dabbled with iPads. In September 1926, The TES described what seems the fearsome challenge of building your own school orrery from a kit of parts: "Mr George Sherrin has done a service to schools where there is not much money to spend on apparatus by devising an easily portable set of about 40 pieces (spokes, pivots, weights, etc), which can be arranged and rearranged to demonstrate the movements of the earth and moon about the sun."

The 1920s, though, was above all the decade of vision and sound. The decade began in a grey, post-war silence and ended with Gold Diggers of Broadway in glorious Technicolor. In 1924, school radio was up and running, only 18 months after the founding of the BBC. A year later, in 1925, the invention of electrical sound recording hugely improved the quality of gramophone records, and by 1930 HMV was advertising "Splendid New Educational Records" in The TES at three shillings a pop. In the same year, the paper ran adverts for the Linguaphone method of teaching languages by gramophone record.

Adding to this burgeoning media was the arrival of narrow-gauge film and projectors suitable for schools, which resulted in a vast increase in the availability of educational films. In 1929, a national Commission on Educational and Cultural Films was set up and within a year had issued a catalogue of films suitable for schools and colleges. For many years, certainly into the 1970s, the showing of 16mm film and the projection of stills by slide and filmstrip projectors were by far the best ways to show visual material to children (it was a long time before the quality of TV caught up). Slide projection became a sophisticated business, featuring synchronised sound on tape and special fade effects that The TES, in a 1968 review, called "fondu-enchaine", or a cross-fade.

Alongside this apparently endless availability of material went a sense of nervousness among teachers and others about the effect on children of the "passiveness" of listening and watching. In March 1954, the year that schools' TV began in this country, The TES reported on an international conference, entitled Television in Education, in Brussels. It featured a great deal of discussion on "passivity" (the Americans, apparently, were dealing with it by involving children in making the films). Then, in April the same year, The TES reported on a Carnegie Trust analysis of the photographed reactions of children as they watched films. The verdict? Stop worrying because children are not unresponsive zombies at the cinema after all. "Again and again, the photographs show the children's active absorption in films, which have the power to hold them," the report said.

It would not be surprising, though, if at least some children were cured of insomnia by the earnest worthiness of what they were offered. The first school radio programme consisted of composer Sir Henry Walford Davies giving a lecture on music, while the 1930 film catalogue featured The Battle of Worcester and The Life of Thomas Becket, as well as another documenting "the habits of birds, the lives of insects, the growth of plants".

"The growth of plants" has recurred as a topic in every possible medium, from photocopiable workbook to film, slideshow, video, school TV, CD-Rom, and now, of course, interactive whiteboard simulation. And all the while, generations of worldly wise heads have continued to ask their bright-eyed techie teachers: "Why don't we just bring some seeds into school and let the kids watch them grow?"

Therein, of course, lies the problem: does technology serve an educational purpose or is it being used for its own sake? This issue crops up in a TES special edition report on CCTV, based on the 1969 national exhibition of audio-visual aids (NAVEX) at London's Olympia. These days, CCTV is shorthand for surveillance. Then, however, it meant being able to transmit lectures and lessons within the school or college, and perhaps recording them at the same time on reel-to-reel video recorders. The possibility seemed so exciting that pages of the Navex edition were devoted to it.

And yet among the pages, in a cautionary article entitled "Traps for the Unwary" by Roderick McLean, are these words that leap from the page: "We must avoid the trap of supposing that a thing becomes educationally desirable simply because television makes it possible." Substitute any other medium, including ICT, and the statement becomes a timeless truth.

Mr McLean goes on to describe how CCTV systems were then being adopted by whole authorities, including Glasgow and the Inner London Education Authority. "To believe that they have potential, to know that they are organised with efficiency and enthusiasm, that is one thing," he wrote. "To be convinced that they are a sound educational investment is another."

There is a fine balance. Teachers and school leaders do not always know what technology is capable of and may well need some kind of lead. Best, though, that it comes from those whose commitment is to learning rather than to gee-whizzery.

The pace of change quickened with the arrival of computers in the classroom. Shortly before the Labour Party came to power in 1997, it commissioned the Stevenson Report on ICT in UK schools. The report concluded: "The state of ICT in our schools is primitive and not improving." It was a wake-up call, but the TES writers who commented on the report avoided dwelling on inadequacies and instead focused on its recommendations: more training, more software, more connectivity, less bureaucracy and restriction. All these, incidentally, came well ahead of more hardware.

But if we really did, in 1997, have "primitive" computer provision in our schools, then we were failing to keep faith with three decades of visionary thinking by dedicated people. At the start, after all, there were eager folk who did IT with no hardware at all. In June 1969, teacher Paul Hunt, of Hreod Burna School in Swindon (now Nova Hreod College), wrote to The TES for advice about a new Mode 3 CSE course he was starting. Mode 3 enabled schools to write their own externally moderated courses.

"We've decided to teach the study of computers," wrote Mr Hunt. "We're considering punching our own tapes and having the tapes run on a computer. We have been given some free computer time, and a postal service would be used." In other words, Hreod Burna was going to have IT on the curriculum even though it was still not practicable to have an actual computer on site. More and more schools did the same thing. Then, as now, there were committed and enthusiastic teachers who believed that computers were about to change everything, and young people needed to be prepared.

It was towards the end of that decade that the micros arrived. "Micro" was short for "microcomputer", as opposed to the "minicomputer", which was bigger. Many teachers of a certain age will nod in recognition at the words of Roger Pope, then principal of Kingsbridge Community College in Devon, who wrote in 2007: "It was the late Seventies when the first computers appeared in our school. They were made by Commodore and called Personal Electronic Transactors, as strange as the orange flared trousers I then wore, yet known by the cuddly acronym of PETs . We felt on the brink of a brave new world, and wondered what we would do when computers ruled the classroom and teachers became redundant."

Anyone who, like Mr Pope, was working with computers in schools before 1980 can count themselves genuine pioneers, and it is fair to conclude that real school computing began in the 1970s. At the start of the 1980s, the government decided to seed the ground by paying half the cost of each school's first computer, but the success of this policy lay in the way the Microelectronics Education Programme (MEP) kept its roots firmly embedded in classroom learning.

When MEP founder-director Richard Fothergill died in an accident in 2004, his former deputy John Anderson paid tribute to him in The TES. Mr Fothergill had been a teacher, he wrote, and it showed: "Richard had an instinctive and accurate sense of the implications for pedagogy and the curriculum of what he saw as the all-pervasive nature of technology."

Throughout the story of ICT in schools, there has been an ongoing debate about the relationship between technology and learning. In a TES article in January 1985, Chris Schenk reviewed the impact of the MEP and particularly the accompanying "micros in primary schools" scheme. If measured in terms of children having computer time, "the success of the initiative is more or less assured", he wrote, but if it is about improving the quality of education, "then the success or failure of the scheme cannot yet be assessed".

During that time, many teachers tried their hands at writing classroom software. Some, like Bill Bonham, founder of Sherston Software, went on to succeed in the business world. Mr Bonham was deputy head at Colton Junior, a large primary school in Gloucester, when the first BBC computer arrived in the early 1980s. "The head thought it ought to come into my classroom as I was teaching a top-year class and I was male," he said. "I started writing phonics programs because I had a low-level language group at the time. I sat up till the early hours working on them."

For the whole of the 1980s and beyond, school computers were exactly that: designed for schools, with software to match. The main choice was between computers from Research Machines (RM) and the line that started with Acorn's 1981 BBC "B" (also known as "The Beeb").

Both developed into powerful, learner-friendly computers: RM's Nimbus and Acorn's Archimedes. Programmable at school level and excellent for exploring control technology, they are still missed by many who worked on them. Come the 1990s, however, and schools decided they needed machines like the ones used in business. Specialist computers for schools were on their way out.

All of that was happening in and for the classroom, but down in the school office a separate line of development was taking place. In the mid-1980s, Management Information Systems (MIS) arrived with the ability to handle staff and student data and schools' finances. In 2002, I wrote: "The coming of Sats and other tests has changed the picture entirely by giving schools lots of information on pupil performance. Handled with care and understanding, this knowledge can help teachers plan what to do next in the classroom."

But as the millennium drew nearer, another revolution was on the way. There had been straws in the wind much earlier. As early as March 1, 1985, The TES ran an article with the very 21st-century headline "On-Line Services". Written by futurologist and author Ray Hammond, it began: "The telephone is the cheapest and most powerful of all computer accessories ."

The article is not about the internet - that was still to come. But it did point out that there were many useful databases out there that were waiting patiently for a time when they could be accessed from the outside. They included Lockheed's Dialog, the British Library Automated Information Service (BLAISE) and The Times Network for Schools (TTNS). "Now that day has arrived," wrote Mr Hammond, "the humble school micro provides a gateway to a world of knowledge so vast that it is breathtaking at first acquaintance."

To anyone who had vision, it was a clear indication of what the computer's real destiny was to be. The Stevenson Report signalled this change in direction by adding the "C" for "communications" in ICT.

There have always been doubters, of course. But when one correspondent questioned the need for computers in primaries in 2000, a Year 6 pupil from Wanstead CofE Primary in east London, was moved to respond. "I believe that secondary school is too late, as do 100 per cent of my class," wrote Anisha Tibrewal. "If we started to learn to read then, it wouldn't help us very much. It is the same with computers. It is the 21st century and we will need computer skills for almost anything."

While writing this piece, I wondered about Anisha and what happened to her; thanks to the power of ICT and social networks, I found her quickly. Ten years on, she is a student at University College London. She remembers writing to The TES, and added this update: "Computers have become essential to almost every aspect of my everyday life, from socialising to work and research. I still believe that it is important for children to gain an early experience in the use of ICT, and probably even more so now, to benefit them as they move through life."

After 1997, driven by the possibilities opened up by wireless networking within schools and the World Wide Web, the rate of change became bewildering.

If this account is not to be swamped by a tidal wave of whiteboards, hand- held devices, netbooks, the rise and fall of dedicated computer suites, learning platforms, parental engagement and cloud services, we need a point of focus. One must mention the British Educational Training and Technology (BETT) show, which was launched in 1985. It was the brainchild of the British Educational Suppliers Association (BESA) and its visionary director, Dominic Savage.

In 2005, innovator and educator Angela McFarlane summarised her TES keynote speech at an event for the paper. By 2015, she predicted, referring to "best practice using ICT . would be like using the term `best practice using paper'". Instead, she said, "the focus will be entirely back where it belongs, on teaching and learning".

Professor McFarlane also predicted that, by 2015, BETT award categories would be entirely to do with different types of learning, including reflective practice, collaborative learning and co-learning. We are now halfway between 2005 and 2015, so we should be seeing signs of these trends emerging in schools. It is for those of you close to the classroom to say whether you think they are or not.


"Making Light Work of Computers" by Pat Harper. The TES, 1 August, 1980.

"Those prophets in government and industry alike who predict a final gloom for the British economy unless schools get to grips with the microchip revolution can glean considerable comfort from the achievement of two sixth-formers at the Royal Grammar School, Newcastle.

"With a technological spirit that would make even Finniston* proud, Graeme Harker and Anthony McKay have developed a computer controlled (stage) lighting system which has already attracted considerable interest . The boys' system consists of an 11-channel lighting console operating up to 110 5kw lights and controlled by a standard Commodore PET microcomputer sitting above it (left). The computer can be programmed to take the lights through a variety of routines including fade up and fade down at variable speed."


By Tony Parkin, ICT consultant and former head of ICT development at the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust

The geek writing this would probably launch into a history of the computers that have changed education. There would be misty-eyed discussion of experiments with Sinclair Spectrums, and memories of whether a program would even load from cassette before the lesson ended. Others will claim the true history only began with educational ICT's own equivalent of the Wars of the Roses, as computer companies Acorn and RM fought for dominance and 150 local authorities swore allegiance to one or the other. Each year at the BETT show, the rivals would unfurl a banner with a device stranger than Excelsior to keep the faithful happy and reap their rewards. In the end, however, the industry standard largely triumphed over the quirkily creative.

For many of us, though, the true history is the change in classroom practice that ICT encouraged. If there is only one computer in a classroom it will usually be used for teaching, rather than learning, and that is how it was in those early days.

But as time went on, more machines arrived and students managed to get their hands on them. For some of us, the time of "one computer between two" heralded a golden era as peer discussion, assistance and shared learning came to the fore. As an adviser supporting classroom teaching at this time, I was frequently moved by the nature and quality of the exchanges between two people sharing a screen, often far more exciting than what was on it. Hearing Bangladeshi boys newly arrived in the UK learning their first English words from their computing buddies, in their excitement to learn PaintSpa's menus to master their artistic endeavours, made a profound impression on me. Here, however, the gender issue also arose as boys insisted on mouse and keyboard domination (except for extended writing) and teachers had to acquire new classroom management skills to ensure that girls got a look-in.

So when was the golden age of educational ICT? For me, it has to be today (or possibly tomorrow). I see ICT-literate students, the return of quirky creativity, a plethora of devices, and ICT with an established place in education. We no longer have to worry about what the devices can and cannot do. We are no longer limited by the technology, but only by our vision of its potential.

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