Ray Barker, director of the British Educational Suppliers Association, laments the effect of linking funding to results on US ICT producers at the 26th National Educational Computing Conference in Philadelphia.
A recent Gartner Consulting report identified the "I-generation"- children brought up with the internet, mobile phones, computer games - a generation which thrives upon technology. The report IT Insights - Trends and UK Skills Implications says that this generation's "preference for collaboration and multi-tasking coupled with low boredom thresholds and fragmented work styles will challenge traditional management styles and business cultures". The future of our economy will depend upon these children and schools have a great part to play in creating the base from which they can launch themselves into the 21st century world of work. The report notes that ICT skills are core to the UK's future prosperity.
It's always interesting when you go overseas to see just how well the UK is meeting this challenge. In the US the National Educational Computing Conference (NECC) appears to have had another successful year - there were 13,302 registered attendees, down by roughly 1,000 from last year (our BETT has 27,000 visitors). However, NECC 2005 shows us just how much government policy and funding, or the lack of it, can affect the way that ICT develops in a country.
It seems as if the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) policy of George Bush (100 per cent of students passing 100 per cent of tests 100 per cent the time - or facing penalties) is having a massive impact on what companies produce and how schools are dealing with their ICT budgets in the US. The number of companies offering assessment products, data interpretation tools and "systems" to manage and integrate curriculum and student data continues to dominate thinking.
So what price collaborative learning and a focus on the learner? Talking to US teachers visiting the UK stands, they continue to show interest in digital video, especially products that help students create their own video productions; mobile and wireless computing; whole-class instruction devices and interactive whiteboards; technology literacy and digital resources that support the curriculum. But they were often not in a position to buy or use them.
On April 28, Congress passed a budget resolution that does not include the $6 billion in additional funding for schools and universities initially promised by the Senate. This makes it likely that the final US education budget for 2006 will lack funding earmarked for school technology. One keynote speaker at NECC made much of the fact that the US will soon be lagging behind, because countries such as Mexico are making a bigger commitment to school ICT.
Critics of NCLB say that without adequate funding, teachers have little chance of preparing students for the 21st century. Since the law's enactment in 2001, there has been a $27 billion funding shortfall in what Congress was supposed to provide to schools to meet the law's requirements. The government is now attempting to reduce the shortfall by taking money from other programmes and putting it towards the ubiquitous testing and accountability requirements of NCLB. As a result, schools or unions in at least 10 states have taken out a joint lawsuit seeking more education funding.
But the keynote speakers at NECC were telling a slightly different story. Deneen Frazier Bowen in her presentation "The Natives Are Restless" focused on how "digital natives" - our students - can help overcome problems: "Today's students don't think with pen and paper... Kids are way above national average in all areas of technology use. Today's youth do not use technology in ways that researchers expect. The successful use of technology is not about data and demographics, but about nurturing and sustaining a genuine conversation with youth."
David Weinberger, presenting the opening keynote, discussed knowledge and how the changes in how students view information affect the education system. "It turns out that we've organised knowledge with the same principles we use for organising physical things. In the digital age... we finally get past those physical limitations. But if we change the principles of organisation we're changing the shape and nature of knowledge." He suggested that educators need to restructure how they present information to take advantage of the non-linear, chaotic nature of the web. Blogs and instant messaging show us that "learning is conversational and social."
According to teachers in US classrooms, it seems that what we are seeing is a significant shift in funding away from technology. Local schools are feeling the pinch in funds and are making decisions that are not in keeping with technology advances. Since there are well over 15,500 independent school districts, this is a far-reaching statement. Some districts are making strides and doing really creative things, but is this enough to make a significant impact? One teacher told me, "With the massive NCLB, or as I call it, Many Children left in the Dust, there is such a pressure for accountability with data, without relevance to learning or teaching. Forget fun and creativity. One must pass the exam in order to generate the federal funds to help purchase ICT."
School districts have become increasingly sophisticated in their collection, storage and analysis of data. With the rise of NCLB, the focus on data analysis has been largely trained on ways to help schools achieve "Adequate Yearly Progress". Teachers interviewed said they focused on those students who were "marginal" and identified and focused interventions on these students. The aim is to "move these students towards proficiency" in order to meet their targets and get their funding. NCLB is rigid in its standards of accountability.
By far the most creative and innovative products at NECC were those from the UK companies present: 2Simple Software, Promethean (whiteboards have yet to take the US by storm), UniServity, Daydream, Focus, Data Harvest, Logotron, RM, Valiant, Crick, Granada, ESP software - because they look to the learner and how children learn. They are about expanding thinking, not ordering or restricting it. However, there were some interesting US products, not based on assessment, available to schools. Check out Cosmic Blobs (www.cosmicblobs.com) a computer art creativity program for students that enables them to experiment with sophisticated 3D computer modelling. Look out also for: ImageBlender, WebBlender, MediaBlender and VideoBlender - editing and authoring tools for images and web, or Tools for an active learning environment (www.Tech4Learning.com); 3dChoreographer - a tool that lets you merge video and animation to create special effects (www.3dchor.com); and Easytech - a technology skills curriculum, provided in a cross-curricular context (www.Learning.com).
So, is this what happens when a standards-driven agenda goes to extremes and is directly linked to funding? Do the real uses of ICT get forgotten? As US educational guru Alan November says, "Even if NCLB succeeds at raising test scores, we will have failed this generation for not teaching creativity, innovation and the discipline of not being self-directed." It may be a lesson to us all.
Ray Barker is director of the British Educational Suppliers Association * IT Insights - Trends and UK Skills Implications was carried out by e-skills UK with Gartner Consulting (2004)