ICT clearly now the brain has gone

25th May 2001 at 01:00
N first glance the essay looked impressive. But the beautifully presented information was deceptive. There was no analysis or coherence. My student Emma had just cut and pasted pages from different websites.

"But I got that bit from Encarta," she remonstrated when I pointed out that chunks of data laid out as spreadsheets are not meaningful just because sourced from the web. She was reluctant to accept that a scrappily hand-written essay by a peer was better, as it was cogent and enlightening.

Technology is a tool, not a substitute for demonstrating intellectual engagement. So how come educational theory and government-endorsed best practice sounds so similar to the crassness of a 15-year-old defending a poor essay? What else is the endowment of IT with super-educative powers if not a confusion of form and content?

When Michelle Selinger argues in a new publication (ICTeachers, IPPR, May 2001), that "new technologies have changed the relationship between teachers and pupils", and Tony Blair tells us that ICT will "revolutionise the learning process", both conflate the tool with the end product. It's as if new technologies inherently contain a shift in pedagogy. But the conclusion that ICT transforms teachers from "sage on the stage" to "guide on the side" is an ideological position on the role of teaching, not a necessary outcome of the wired world.

What adds credibility to the excessive claims laid at ICT's door is the adoption of pseudo-academic jargon. Too many consultation documents use high-falutin' techno-babble to justify claims that ICT equals new ways of teaching and learning. Listening to an eminent educationist describing how new technologies will "liberate text from the page and create a hypertext environment which involves the reader in the cognitive reconstruction of meaning to suit his or her own specifications", I felt that this was a case of the emperor's new clothes. Surely he wasn't arguing that a resource would lead to a re-definition of literacy?

But it is this theory that has added ICT usage to literacy and numeracy as a core educational skill. This conclusion is not inherent to the technology, but is a political acceptance of a relativism, which by putting ICT literacy on a par with the ablity to read and write, degrades the intellectual capacity needed for the latter.

As teacher and researcher Toby Marshall explains, comparing ICT use with that of English makes the shallow nature of ICT skills apparent: "With English one has to master both an arbitrary set of signs and a grammar that governs their arrangement. Consequently, learning English requires systematic instruction. ICT, on the other hand, uses visual or mimetic icons to represent its operations - such as the rubbish bin on the Windows system - making its use far more intuitive."

There is a danger of making the acquisition of banal tasks an educational outcome; many children have mastered basic ICT skills pre-school. Once the capacity to be interactive seems a valid educational end point, gaining the skills with which to acquire it becomes as important as content.

When the Department for Education and Employment says "New technology can add new dimensions to lessons, improving presentation" (Connecting the Learning Society, 1997), current marking schemes would credit Emma's "ICT literacy", regardless of content. Hence we arrive at another new ICT-dogma. It's not what you learn, but how you learn that is important.

This empties education of any substance. No wonder it is concluded that ICT can empower pupils by putting "learners in the driving seat" through the click of a mouse. Who needs teaching if the content of education is downgraded to skill acquisition?

Daunted by marking work for huge classes, many teachers hope that new technologies will transform assessment. ICT can be used to train pupils in basic skills, but is of less use in assessing higher level work which invariably requires an assessor capable of making independent judgments.

This illustrates the basic flaw with the discussion which attributes creative powers to ICT. It underestimates the input of human beings. Worse, it can lead to new teaching methods limited by technology, rather than making technology a valuable addition to teacher and pupil creativity.

Emperor's new clothes it is.

Claire Fox is director of the Institute of Ideas, which is organising a Creativity, Curricula and ICT conference next week. For details see www.instituteofideas.com

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