In this high-speed world, what's taking us so long?

23rd May 2014 at 01:00

Shortly after the dawn of the new millennium, Scottish education started thinking about a new curriculum and a national intranet for schools. Well over a decade later, countless experts are still agonising over how to make a success of Curriculum for Excellence and Glow.

In 2004, Harvard student Mark Zuckerberg launched (the same year the term "A Curriculum for Excellence" was coined). What began as a crass system for rating students' attractiveness rapidly became a global phenomenon with more than a billion users. Now, though, Facebook has gone from bright young thing to elder statesman of social media - such is the relentless pace of change in global digital communications. Meanwhile, we are still struggling with the introduction of CfE.

Technology in 2014 is all about speed: the instant communication of social media, the importance to businesses and communities of decent broadband, the fads that quickly hurtle into obscurity.

Schools are struggling to cope with this new world, as teachers at last week's NASUWT Scotland annual conference made clear (see pages 12-14). There were tales of headteachers traipsing between rooms because they were not permitted to use Google in their offices, of class teachers spending hours on the phone to council ICT departments just to download software, of derisory laughs from pupils asked to use Glow.

"We are vastly behind industry and we are not keeping pace with the wider world," said Dumfries and Galloway teacher Scott Anderson, whose motion demanding more ICT funding was backed unanimously.

There are reasons to believe that schools can catch up. Plenty of clued-up senior figures in local authorities are pushing for change, and education secretary Michael Russell is no Luddite. But there remains a systemic tension: set against the nimbleness, immediacy and open access of commercial digital communications, education remains glacial in its approach to change.

And this is the culture that produced Glow. That is a fundamental problem. No matter how much it improves, pitching Glow to pupils is like a dad telling his teenage children about a band they should check out. Teenagers like things they have found themselves, and Glow, by definition, can never be that.

"Bring your own device" is the commonly proposed solution to schools' digital deficit, although Mr Anderson noted drily that school wi-fi is overburdened as it is without pupils triggering all-out collapse by downloading millions of megabytes to their gleaming, branded technology.

But smartphones and tablets are lurking in pupils' schoolbags in ever greater numbers, providing a tantalising alternative to schools' Jurassic technology. Better that children sit at their desks, locked into the task at hand, than await furtive exploration when teachers turn their backs.

We must embrace the technology that is commonplace outside schools, or risk leaving teachers in an impossible position.

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