Tony van der Kuyl argues that ICT isn't being used effectively enough to support collaborative learning
What kind of learners do we want for the 21st Century? Well, if you speak to a lot of people, they'll say things like: "We want learners who are creative, enterprising, confident and agile. They should also be team players, collaborators, problem-solvers and able to 'think outside of the box'." These are worthy ideals, but sadly, much of the ICT being used in schools today does not support these aims. Instead, it's firmly anchored to a 20th-century compartmentalised view of learning.
Don't get me wrong, there are some impressive things being done in schools with ICT. Software like iMovie (for video making), GarageBand (for music making) and StopMotion (for animation) are great for harnessing students'
creativity and they do much more than simply help children develop certain skill sets. A program like iMovie, for example, also involves using cognitive skills for activities such as planning and storyboarding. Even better, these types of software have a low threshold, so that young pupils and less-able users can get to grips with them, too.
In a sense, ICT is like a pencil - use it and the results we produce will be different from those created by, say, Michelangelo. The important thing is that everyone gets a chance to fulfil their potential using the same tools.
Unfortunately, however, we are also increasingly seeing a corporate influence on our educational system, with the result that corporate ICT is wagging the learning dog's tail. This is happening in many Scottish educational authorities of which Glasgow is just one example. It has one of the largest community networks, connecting hundreds of schools in the area.
And yet teachers cannot use it to access audio or video online. The reason? The network provider forbids it. Corporate ICT is telling teachers what they can use to teach. In extreme cases elsewhere it results in Apple Macintosh computers being removed from schools because they don't conform to "approved" (for that, read "PC") standards.
We need to widen our horizons beyond seeing ICT as something that can be simply used to squeeze the last improvement pip out of a 40-minute lesson, and if you go to many primary schools you'll see some encouraging developments. Take a policy imperative like citizenship. If you look at primary schools, there's a lot of collaborative learning going on - children working in groups and planning, discussing, debating and co-operating - which exemplifies the rudiments of good citizenship. But when children reach 15 and demonstrate collaboration to an external assessor, they are deemed as cheating. Yet we know today that kids constantly network with each other. They use email, text, instant messaging and chat, yet this degree of collaboration is viewed as a failure in terms of our current vision of learning and the tyranny of our assessment system.
Learning should take place in learner-centric environments rather than compartmentalised environments. Technology can be used to support this vision of learning by making learning more productive, compelling, personal and accessible. Yet, sadly, when I walked around the BETT 2005 show in London, in January, I was underwhelmed. A lot was made of interactive whiteboard technology, but I saw few signs of how children could use it in the ways outlined above. It seemed to me that while we had moved away from the era of "death by PowerPoint", we were entering one of "death by PowerPoint on a whiteboard". Where were the objectives that encouraged collaborative learning or encouraged problem-solving or gave children the confidence to ask questions?
But this need not be the case. Travel half way around the world to the Australian Science and Maths School (ASMS) in Queensland, and you'll find ICT being used to expand the students' learning horizons and foster collaboration. On the day I visited it, pupils at a school in Cornwall were working with the Australian students on a control technology topic. The children back in the UK were remotely controlling robots in the ASMS lab.
The ASMS has been designed from the bottom up to encourage new forms of teaching and learning - for example, there are no corridors. The pioneering work done at ASMS has now been transferred to other institutions and the Scottish Interactive Technology Centre has worked with parties in Queensland, Ireland and Singapore on similar initiatives.
The time is right to change the learning agenda from its current narrow focus, and that means posing questions to our policy makers, curriculum designers, architects and teachers. We need to explore issues such as quality assurance, learning tools, open standards, creativity, collaborative learning, school building design, assessment and much more.
We should also be using ICT to support the learner to become adaptive, responsive, creative, agile, enterprising, enquiring and full of ingenuity.
There has always been an "e" in learning, and, in the 21st century, we should be using that fifth letter of the alphabet to engage, enrich and empower the learner.
Tony van der Kuyl, director of the Scottish Interactive Technology Centre (SITC) at the University of Edinburgh, was talking to George Cole