On the line;Numeracy

14th May 1999 at 01:00
It's time for a more reflective and thoughtful approach to ICT,believes Neil McLean

Back in the Sixties a friend of my father's was working as a research chemist developing glues. He described a visit to the lab by some officials who were interested in any military applications. "Tell me," said one well-dressed senior visitor, "how are we progressing on the simultaneous transmission of matter?" It was the use of the word "we" that was the giveaway. There are few things more frustrating than being expected to live up to the unrealistic expectations of others, especially when their knowledge of the subject is drawn from a dodgy special effect. On the one hand you're glad they're taking an interest, on the other hand you're storing up troubles for the future if you smile benignly, take the money and promise the earth.

All of which starts to explain the somewhat ambivalent attitude I sense from many information and communications technology co-ordinators, practitioners and advisers, and the need for us all to be absolutely clear about what we are doing and why. I don't want to appear negative, but sometimes the most important contribution comes from the person who says:

"Sorry, if you build the bridge like that it will fall down." So what are we trying to achieve with the Government's investment, and how will we know we've succeeded?

The rhetoric claims that ICT transforms the learning process, re-engineers institutions and requires wholly new skills. Certainly, ICT has a lot to offer for teaching and learning, but I don't believe there are any "magic bullets" - applications of ICT which are so powerful that, irrespective of how they are used, learning happens. We know too much about learning to believe such claims.

Highly focused software aimed at developing a specific set of skills or knowledge does exist; there is no shortage of tables teachers and spelling games. However, real learning comes from guided consolidation, communication and reflection - the things that make up pedagogy, a word we don't use enough in this country. For the foreseeable future we need teachers for that, and a discussion of how teachers can best harness the power of ICT to support them in their teaching would produce more results than claims which give ICT an almost mystical power. This means linking what ICT does to what teachers want to do with their pupils.

Too much guidance on ICT describes what the pupils do without showing what the teacher did to make it happen, which is a bit like describing the goal posts without giving practical advice on how to get the ball in the net. Most teachers are well aware of the goal posts. They have seen examples of children's work and read about exciting initiatives. How about some clear guidance on ICT and pedagogy?

If anything, the claims for ICT's role in institutional development are more extreme. The impression given is that you only get benefit from ICT if you completely "re-engineer your processes". There is, I believe, a Chinese saying: "If you intend to cross a chasm, best do it in a single bound." Which is all very well, but a good recipe for persuading those without confidence in their leaping ability to stay on their side of the chasm.

Let's look at the different management jobs within schools, including the management of learning, of time and of resources, and identify the different aspects best supported by ICT. Schools need real solutions based on the way they do things, not over-engineered approaches which require them to adapt to someone else's management model. Powerful administrative packages do exist, but we are only just beginning to see software that recognises school's roles in managing learning.

Finally, what about the "new skills" required by ICT? The half a million people predicted to be working in call centres by next year need to be able to take telephone calls from difficult customers, clarify what they are saying and update the company customer database while they're doing it. increasingly, people's first choice for information will be an online multimedia source. They'll need information skills and technical skills.

I'm not convinced by the arguments that these are all new skills. The skills of reading and locating information on screen are different to using printed texts, and certainly should be part of any modern curriculum. However, more often than not ICT brings established skills to the fore in new ways. Everyone now needs some of the skills once only associated with librarians. Skimming and sifting are now part of the mainstream. However, as before, we need to get behind the hype to see what really matters. We might be talking about a revolution, but one that will only arrive by evolution.

Neil McLean is head of the schools directorate at the British Educational Communications Agency

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