ICT - Make do and mend

21st January 2011 at 00:00
Schools should stop wasting money on buying expensive kit; teachers must acquire a different mindset, according to a leading education ICT expert. Jack Kenny reports

For the past 30 years and more, the development of ICT in schools has been driven by the accumulation of equipment. From the BBC 'B' computers of the early 1980s through interactive whiteboards to the arrival of hand-held devices in the classroom, acquiring ever-more sophisticated pieces of kit has been the consistent goal of school ICT strategies.

But all that could be about to change, according to education ICT expert Professor Stephen Heppell, who argues that the proliferation of equipment in the home means the role of schools is about to undergo a massive shift.

Professor Heppell, professor of new media environments at Bournemouth University, believes that rather than spend money on new equipment, schools should make more use of what children already own. And when ICT budgets are facing an unprecedented squeeze, this argument gathers considerable force.

"Why would a school provide a network and all the computers when kids have already got the stuff in their pockets that works very well?" he says. "The big reason I am saying this is that we need to do it all cheaper. They (the pupils) have got tweeting on their phones, decent browsers, and iPads. We have to get to the point that we reached with calculators when you can just say: 'Turn up with the stuff'."

The use of mobile phones is still controversial in schools, but Professor Heppell believes teachers need to cast their doubts aside and go much further in embracing social media in the classroom. "Why can't kids use Facebook and Twitter in the classroom? They use it in their lives," he says.

One school already putting these ideas into practice is Saltash.net Community School in Cornwall. Dan Roberts, assistant headteacher, believes the key is to encourage children to work independently, giving them time to explore the tools and decide what would be appropriate.

"Some schools say they would never dream of allowing pupils to use the internet or mobile phones," he says. "But we produced a framework to keep them safe and we created acceptable use policies."

Professor Heppell suggests that the arrival of technology such as smart phones and iPads is not only bringing personalised learning closer but also making it more affordable than providing laptops for every child, for example.

"It is cheaper than building and paying for all these filters and networks with three IT staff in a cupboard, who spend the whole day stopping people doing things," he says. "That is hugely expensive. Just let it all go. We know now how to do all this stuff safely.

"If we must spend money, buy the stuff that kids would never buy, like big screens for music technology and chroma-key (bluescreen software). Spend it on kids who have no money at home. For 90 per cent of kids we don't have to intervene at all. We are wasting money. Spend it on the 10 per cent who don't have access."

Professor Heppell believes that successive waves of investment have put UK schools near the top of the ICT league, but the recession offers an opportunity to show that progress does not have to be expensive.

"Other countries look at us and see the schools we have built and the technology that we have installed: every kid with a laptop, the school networks with staffs of technicians running them," he says. "They look and say: 'We are never going to do that!' What we have done is to make education look so expensive.

"We now have to do the opposite, to use our ingenuity and the technology we have to show that we can do better learning cheaper."

While many in education ICT are filled with foreboding over the next few years, Professor Heppell is optimistic. "Every time we have had a recession it has been great for learning," he says. "People realise we will only get out of this with smart people and that means learning. We realise that we will have to do learning differently."

It is in this spirit that Professor Heppell, who built Ultralab at the former Anglia Polytechnic into a leading technology research centre, argues that the looming demise of the Government's education ICT agency Becta will not be the disaster that some have predicted.

"The first thing to do is to look back at the quangos that have gone - each of them started as something small and innovative and became quite big," he says. "We're in a cycle here: we will go back to something that is small and innovative and that is going to be very exciting."

He says teachers have already developed alternatives to the support and professional development offered by Becta, in the form of TeachMeets - where teachers give short presentations to informal gatherings of colleagues - and Edublogs.

Dai Barnes, who teaches ICT at St Benedict's School in Ealing, west London, is a TeachMeets enthusiast. "The most rewarding events recently have been the TeachMeets because they are teachers presenting their classroom practice to other teachers," he says. "At a TeachMeet I get to meet lots of other teachers enthused about teaching and learning. It generates a buzz that makes me proud to be a teacher."

The world of blogs, tweets and YouTube, Professor Heppell believes, will make it easier for teachers to help one another. "The rhetoric of the current Government is "Power to the people" and that is what the technology is capable of," he says. "Power to the community is what the Government promises. The two together are way more exciting than being told what to do.

"As an ICT professional, being asked is more cool than being told. Nobody fought for the quangos. Every ICT teacher was delighted to get these people off their backs at the national level."

He believes that it is schools - rather than universities - that are at the cutting edge of developing ICT in education, and that even with rapidly diminishing budgets, teachers can still lead the way.

"The best teachers are doing fabulous stuff," he says. "There is a real sense in which universities and colleges are way off the pace and the cool stuff is happening in the classrooms. Every time we have given teachers the freedom to do things differently, they have done it in spades."


- "21st century learning looks pretty exciting and today's leaners, with today's pocketable personal-connected ICT, are showing us very, very clearly just how good learning might be. We ignore that at our peril."

- "Every turned-off device is a turned-off child."

- "To solve the 21st century's problems will take all our ingenuity, innovation, creativity and delight. And will need every single learner. The only certainty is that to carry on doing the 'old' way would be a reckless and foolish gamble. That is why I can be so certain that learning will and can change."

- "The world we are in is full of surprises; our learning should be, too."

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