Heard any of the evidence?

11th February 2000 at 00:00
The Government may be pumping millions of pounds into ICT in schools. Yet, as George Cole asks, is there any real proof that it is the wisest possible investment?

Few would doubt this Government's belief that schools should be using information and communications technology (ICT). Michael Wills, the minister for learning and technology, says that by 2002, the government will have invested over pound;1 billion in ICT in schools. As a result schools and parents are being positively encouraged to purchase ICT equipment and software, and to use ICT as part of their teaching strategy. But where is the evidence to justify this investment? Is using ICT a cost-effective way of improving teaching and learning, or it is an act of faith? Good, solid research should be able to provide the answer, but anyone looking for this type of evidence is likely to be disappointed.

Steve Higgins, lecturer in primary education at Newcastle University, says:

"There's research out there which suggests that gains can be achieved in pupil learning by using ICT, but there's very little research to help schools justify investing in ICT compared with other forms of interventions."

Research into educational ICT is a flourishing business and funding comes from a wide range of sources including the government, its agencies, charities, foundations, academic institutions and commercial companies. Paul Kelley, head of Monkseaton Community High School in Whitley Bay, says:

"A lot of research is product-led, or is used for political or educational argument. It's a case of 'I want to do this and this is the research which justifies my position'." Philippa Cordingley, chief professional adviser for research at the Teacher Training Agency (TTA), says: "What we lack is research that makes strong and substantial links between ICT and improvements in learning and teaching. There's plenty of research that suggests this, but long-term research is missing."

Eileen Devonshire, assistant chief executive of the British Educational Suppliers Association (BESA), says little research is being done on the overall impact of technology in teaching and learning, and even key reports lack a central repository to assess and combine their conclusions.

To find the right answers, you need to ask the right questions, and you also need to know how to interpret what you find, says Angela McFarlane, the newly appointed director for evidence and practice at the British Educational Communications and Technology Agency (BECTA). "People want to see some measurable improvement from their investment and the key element is how we define effectiveness," she says.

One of the criticisms made against educational research in ICT is that it often bears little or no relation to the real world of the classroom. Don Passey, senior research fellow at the department for psychology at Lancaster University, says: "Research comes from a particular set of circumstances that are not transferable to another set of circumstances. Some research has been done in closed, almost laboratory conditions and, in some cases, there have been almost as many researchers as children! This is not the situation you find in the typical classroom." Philippa Cordingley adds that research often lacks observational studies of what happens in a classroom: "It is such a complex environment and many reports simply skim the iceberg."

Research needs to b micro- rather than macro-based, says McFarlane, adding that some researchers start with a flawed premise: "Some studies lump together technologies simply because they're computer-based and that's too simplistic. Why should email, Internet access and video conferencing be put together when they're so different?" Too much research focuses on either curriculum content or pupils' learning gains, but misses out providing a vivid portrait of how pupils and teachers use ICT in the classroom, says Cordingley: "So we never find out what works."

Niel McLean, BECTA's director for schools, says: "A lot of research is learner-focused, and that's okay, but I'm more interested in 'what did the teacher do?'" Looking at how teachers use ICT could be a fruitful exercise especially as a TTA-funded research project from Newcastle University found that while ICT can help primary school pupils improve their reading and writing, the most important factor was how the teachers used and managed the ICT (The TES, January 14). Philippa Cordingley says that research has tended to focus on glamorous, leading-edge ICT and its potential impact, but adds: "Teachers are looking for how you can integrate generic software like spreadsheets into a lesson."

Yet to be fair to researchers working in this field, much of the funding has been directed towards cutting-edge technology. Researchers also face the problem that ICT is a constantly moving target and that research which was relevant in the early Nineties may not be today.

Colin Harrison, professor of literacy studies at Nottingham University, says: "There is an ethical dimension to educational research as well as the fact that you could be withholding technology from some groups of children who are disadvantaged by this action. There have been some reports of headteachers giving the control group access to technology, and that makes it hard for researchers to do their work properly."

Peter Scrimshaw, director of the OURM Learning Schools programme of the New Opportunities Fund (NOF) training initiative, says that too much research is short-term: "What we need is the longitudinal tracking of those innovative schools who are ahead of everyone else. We could build up a body of material that would be highly accessible and useful for late developers. The NOF training scheme is a good example."

Kelley says his school follows this pattern of working: "We innovate and then we evaluate using external evaluators, in our case, Durham University. This way, we get to find out what has a value-added impact and what doesn't. It's something all schools should be doing as a matter of course."

The time taken to run in-school evaluations isn't the problem, but funding is. "I have to run around looking for funding to do our research," says Kelley.

But there are positive signs. Impact 2 is a two-year programme run by BECTA that will involve some 60 schools and thousands of students, whose progress will be tracked over much of this period. And Philippa Cordingley says attitudes are changing within the educational research community: "It used to be a case of 'This is new technology, how does it affect learning?' But we're now saying, 'Here's an issue, can ICT help?' Research should be learner-led and we have to realise that ICT is a tool and not a means to an end. We have to see how it works with different forms of effective teaching."

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