Good ideas don't come in a big box

3rd December 2004 at 00:00
Low tech and high tech usually make for a good marriage in the classroom, says Michael Russell

No doubt many parents will already have trudged the corridors of PC World, or some such place, and - after the bafflement and the hard sell - will now be in possession of a new computer to be placed under the tree on Christmas morning. Expensive as such a present can be, the affordability of even quite powerful personal computers has increased year on year in perfect step (fortunately for manufacturers) with the understanding by parents that technology in education is here to stay.

Of course, for most children receiving such a gift the main excitement will be in playing games. But in this equation of giving, there will lurk in the adult mind the hope that learning will also be part of the experience.

No one who visits a school these days can doubt that the use of computers has been the single most important change in educational practice in this generation. Thirty years ago they were nowhere to be seen. Twenty years ago a BBC keyboard might sit in the corner of a science lab, while the more nerdy kids tried to marry up a cassette tape deck to a Sinclair Spectrum.

But they were still on the very fringes of education.

Now they are everywhere, and in numbers, in virtually every classroom.

Their positive benefit in enhancing learning and teaching is not only huge, but exponentially enormous: we have barely begun to explore the outer margins of the revolutionary advantage that they bring.

That revolutionary advantage points tantalisingly in many directions. For rural schools they bring the advantage of being able - literally - to plug into a bigger world, but the sharing of information and accessing of knowledge applies wherever they are sited and used. There is no subject or area of enquiry that cannot be helped by the appropriate introduction of computer learning techniques. Indeed the core skill set for children starting out on their lifelong educational journey must now include the acquisition of computer skills almost as soon as basic literacy and numeracy are grasped - or perhaps even at the same time.

Our changing exam system is undoubtedly going to go on changing as technology develops, no matter the reservations presently expressed in many quarters, and the whole role of the teaching profession will require to adjust to these new realities. Indeed, present progress and present limitations have as much to do with slow adaptation by existing teachers as they have to do with affordability or the level of available technology.

But embracing the high tech does not mean that we should abandon the low tech. They usually make a good marriage, even if Scots are given to extremes such as the staffroom Luddite view that computers are "taking over" education in a way that will lead to moral and intellectual collapse.

That is as daft as those who endlessly predict the arrival of Utopia as a result of the increasing pace of the technological process.

In this, as in life, a sense of balance is required and an example not just of the continuing importance of low-tech solutions, but of the way in which they can also trigger innovation, can be found in a tiny Scottish product - the "Flipper" - that is being piloted in a couple of secondary schools in Glasgow. Flippers are collections of 60 small blank cards on a metal ring, small enough to fit comfortably in the pocket or attach to a key-ring or belt. On one side of each card, a child can write a question or a word. On the other, they can put the answer or the translation. They then become a personal test - able to be repeated constantly at any time - as well as an aide memoire. They are also cheap enough to be used in bulk.

The idea is not new. Linda Barnes, the originator of Flippers, worked in Nagoya in Japan for six years and not only saw the cards being used by children when learning English but used them herself when learning Japanese. But she didn't think about the idea again until, back in Scotland, her seven-year-old daughter was having difficulty with basic arithmetic. A home-produced Flipper resulted in substantial progress, simply because the necessary information was close to hand, easy to access and under the control of the child.

An early test in a south of Scotland school was similarly positive: 17 out of 19 S1 pupils said that using a Flipper had helped them to memorise information and 15 of the 19 said it was easier, and faster, than any other method they had tried. All of them said they would recommend Flippers to their friends.

Linda has now moved on to manufacture Flippers and the present Glasgow pilot, if successful, should lead to increased demand, not least because her Flippers are attractively presented, inexpensive and very portable.

Flippers are just what they claim to be - an aide to learning. They are not substitutes or rivals, or an antidote to the electronics all around us.

Given their obvious application to issues of numeracy and literacy, they may also be something of a godsend at a time when those matters are of pressing concern, not just because of the failure of the Scottish Executive to honour its promises of more teachers for these subjects at the crucial point of primary to secondary transition, but also because there is increasing evidence of dissatisfaction among employers at the acquisition of these skills during conventional education.

Flippers might even be used to help those who have difficulty in learning how to use a computer. It is easy to imagine a set of software application questions on each card, with the required solution on either. Such a meeting of low tech and high tech might persuade the doubters that each has its place in our endlessly changing world.

Michael Russell is a writer and broadcaster.

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