The Issue: ICT in primary schools - Wii don't think much of school screen time

3rd October 2008 at 01:00
New research finds pupils expect school computers to be boring. But this does not have to be the case, writes Gerald Haigh

We know what primary school information and communications technology looks like by now. Each classroom will have a digital whiteboard at the front and some computers around the side. Down the corridor there will be an ICT suite for when the whole class needs to be engaged.

The trouble is, according to Diana Laurillard, professor of learning with digital technologies at the University of London's Institute of Education, it has been like that for a long time - and it is not doing enough for children's learning. In her inaugural lecture earlier this year, she said: "Education is on the brink of being transformed through learning technologies. However, it has been on the brink for some decades now."

Meanwhile, in the world beyond school, people - and that includes children - don't just use computer technology for a few specific purposes. Instead, they live in a digital world where communication, to take one example, isn't just conducted differently but has actually become something different.

In other words, that classroom, with its whiteboard and staid-looking workstations uneasily positioned around the edges, is a long way from the world of YouTube, online gaming, Nintendo DS Lite and Club Penguin ("Waddle around and meet new friends!").

Professor Laurillard's message seems to be a theme at the institute's Knowledge Lab. In March, one of the lab's team asked pupils in five primaries what they thought about ICT in school. The results - Learners and Technology 7-11, published by Becta, the education technology agency - will be discussed at Dreams of Virtual Reality, a conference at the institute next month.

The document is detailed, but perhaps the most significant sentence it contains is this: "During the interviews, pupils' accounts of their uses of ICT within school were subdued in relation to the passion with which they talked about their out-of-school activities."

So, asked about computers in school, children talked about writing, drawing, information searches and databases. But, about home computers, they "enthused" and "spoke animatedly" about playing Wii tennis, caring for virtual pets, and using their mobiles and MP3 players. What is particularly telling, though, is that the children apparently did not see this home-school contrast as unusual. It was as if they expected anything to do with school to be boring.

John Potter, of the research team, feels there is a message in this. "School leaders might begin to tackle this by engaging children in talking about their ICT preferences, and discussing how they use technology at home," he says.

At this point, as primary heads in technologically adventurous schools begin to rear up in anger, it needs to be acknowledged that many are at the cutting edge, for which they are celebrated and encouraged, by Becta's ICT Excellence Awards, for example. But it is in the nature of school computing that it is a patchy sort of business. When progress is slow, it is not necessarily the school's fault.

Val Cameron is head of The Park Lane Primary and Nursery in Whittlesey, Cambridgeshire, and works with Becta and the National College for School Leadership (NCSL) on ICT and children's learning. She believes that keeping on top of every aspect of educational ICT is a big challenge.

"What you see are elements of good practice that don't go right across the board," she says. "So a school might be good at podcasting, for example, but not so good at using the management information system. It's a capacity problem. Primaries often have to rely on buying in support."

Effective leaders, she believes, spread development around the staff, which also avoids the problem of what to do if the person for the school's computers leaves.

"You try to develop pockets of expertise," she says. "So you might have one who's good on control technology, another on video, and so on. That's worked for me."

Mrs Cameron is also well aware of funding constraints, but she knows, too, that heads are much more savvy about budgeting for school computing than they were in the early days. She urges heads to make the most of inexpensive technology.

"I have a motto: `Cheap or free'. It's a question of fully utilising what you already have," she says.

Always, though, the emphasis has to be on what new technology will do for learning. So if there is great attention at present on digital media - photography, video, sound, animation - it's because it promotes a wide range of skills.

Julia Elliott is head of Crosshall Junior School in St Neots, Cambridgeshire, and took part in the NCSL's sadly defunct Slict programme (strategic leadership of ICT). She makes the case well.

"We have an animation project in Year 3 where the outcomes have been phenomenal," she says. "Not so much in terms of the ICT, because that part of it's easy. It's been to do with the softer skills - taking turns, being self-critical and self-evaluative of their learning. I keep emphasising that all this is about learning and not about ICT."

Or as Mrs Cameron says: "A head has to know their onions - to hold on to the strategy and vision."

Details of the IoE conference at;


Rocking cyberspace with blogs and hogs

Clunbury CofE Primary in Shropshire, which won Becta's Best Primary School ICT Excellence Award in 2007, is "a small school that's really rocking", according to Val Cameron, a head who works with Clunbury.

Small it certainly is, with 66 children plus a nursery. And rocking? Look at the school's website and judge for yourself.

Andrew Davis, its head, has made full use of web technology to develop a blog that not only provides a real outlet for pupil gossip and humour, but is also a platform for collaborative teaching and learning, home-school access and developing links across the world: there's a lively exchange on the blog, for example, between Clunbury children and pupils at Radin Mas Primary in Singapore.

Mr Davis is an enthusiast for the blog as a vehicle for communication. "Emails just clog up the system," he says. "This way children can exchange comments and find out about other cultures."

The overwhelming impression is of a small rural school that has broadened horizons for its children, staff and families. "ICT inspires and motivates children, and provides opportunities that they wouldn't have otherwise," says Mr Davis.

And Clunbury is not the only primary opening up its school for comment on the web. The website of Sir Robert Hitcham CofE Primary includes a resource centre for teachers worldwide on all primary subjects (just click "Resources").

A leading figure on the site is Prickles, a toy hedgehog. He (or is it she?) is a Euro-Hog, appearing in pupils' photographs taken in Belgium and France, as well as around the UK.

Jenny Elphick, head of Hitcham in Framlingham, Suffolk, believes that ICT does not have to involve a child sitting alone in front of a computer.

"In the working IT world, projects are group-based, using teamwork skills, not done by people at solitary desks. And so here it's rare to see a child working alone. It's usually two to a computer," she says. And for younger children particularly, ICT doesn't necessarily involve a computer at all.

"The children in our nursery use computerised toys - a little aeroplane that they can program to do a few moves, and a train," Mrs Elphick says.

"They're doing a lot of photography, and using hand-held microphones to record their voices. A lot of it is group work, not children sitting at individual workstations.";


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