Liberated by the mouse
It is never easy to separate reality from hype in computing. This is just as true in education, particularly since the announcement of significant funding, some pound;1 billion, for resources, networking, content and training. So what are the real priorities?
It boils down to three things. First, it is about using the power of computers to raise standards, particularly in literacy and numeracy. There is evidence of how teachers have used computers to illustrate ideas, and to provide material that stretches those who are progressing well, or supports those with difficulties.
Teachers can also use computers to manage learning in new ways. Curriculum and assessment data can be brought together so that information about the children's progress can inform future teaching.
Second, it is about making schools more effective by providing information and resources efficiently, encouraging ideas and practice to be shared, and minimising bureaucracy. The National Grid for Learning (NGFL) provides an "architecture" of educational content which can be easily searched, freeing time for the real business of education.
The Standards Site on the grid gives useful guidance and support on school improvement and there are links to information from other sites to help with curriculum planning, bench-marking and target-setting. Teachers will be able to access high quality learning resources and share ideas and practice through the Virtual Teachers Centre. We are already seeing the beginnings of some lively exchanges and debates in the conference area in the centre's meeting room.
Third, the grid aims to improve school leavers' IT capability. At present, several million people use information and communciations technology as part of their work. But the numbers are increasing - such skills are becoming an essential aspect of employability. The all-pervasive nature of ICT means that, increasingly, people need IT skills in their everyday life. A key target for the NGFL is that pupils gain the IT skills they need for employment, lifelong learning and to engage in a technological society.
These three priority areas set an agenda with implications for the curriculum, assessment, management, resources, infrastructure and training, all of which need to be addressed in schools' development plans. Training is clearly a priority. The ICT training for serving teachers becomes available in April. The Teacher Training Agency is approving the training providers to ensure that their offerings are suitably focused on the use of ICT in teaching. Needs assessment material will also be available. to help individual teachers reflect on their training needs. The challenge for schools is to bring together these individual training needs into a coherent plan, reflecting the school's priorities and circumstances.
As far as curriculum planning is concerned, schools need to develop a curriculum that addresses both the need to ensure that pupils gain the necessary IT skills, and the need to exploit ICT in other teaching. The exemplar scheme of work from the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority provides primary schools with useful guidance. For secondaries, the issue is more complex. Pupils need to be taught the appropriate IT skills, but if this is not co-ordinated with the application of those skills it can be a sterile experience.
The most effective approach is one where skills and concepts are introduced in a planned way, which supports their application in other subjects. The British Educational Communications and Technology Agency (BECTA) and the advisers' organisation NAACE are developing material to help with this.
Assessment in IT is also a key issue. The statutory requirement to assess pupils' IT capability at key stage 3 reflects the importance of IT skills. The QCA's exemplification booklet provides the essential guidance. At key stage 4, schools should be considering how pupils' IT skills may be recognised through qualifications.
Schools with Internet connections need a clear policy on pupils' access. When the NGFL becomes fully developed, it will provide a managed space for learners. But we are not there yet: given the real concerns about undesirable material and the scope for wasting time, many schools are making the sensible decision to restrict pupils' access. Instead, teachers are using the Internet as a resource, gathering material for use in lessons and developing structured activities to help pupils develop the necessary information skills. BECTA will play a key role in ensuring the educational worth of sites on the NGFL.
There are a number of issues around purchasing, not least year 2000 compliance. The complexity of schools' purchasing decisions underlines the value of "managed services" , as outlined in the Government's Open for Learning, Open for Business document. Suppliers will be able to apply for their services to be "kite-marked" by BECTA. Schools may then enter into a single contract covering resources and services, reducing the time spent shopping around and negotiating with individual suppliers. Then schools will be able to focus on the real issue - securing the maximum teaching and learning returns on their investments.
Niel McLean is head of BECTA's schools directorate BECTA: http:www.becta.org.uk
Standards Site: www.standards.dfee.gov.uk
Virtual Teachers Centre: www.vtc.ngfl.gov.uk