The new illiteracy

18th November 1994 at 00:00
It would appear that tales of the Information Superhighway have been running away with us. Amid all the hype and the political pledges about the promises it holds for education, there emerges a far bleaker picture - of a new "underclass", a generation of "computer illiterates" leaving school without the basic skills needed to succeed either in college or on the job market.

The finding from our own survey of UK further education and sixth-form colleges, that there are disturbing numbers of students entering college without any IT skills (page l), will come as a shock to many. The government has invested millions of pounds in computers and CD-Roms for schools over the past decade, and presents Britain as a leading country in IT education. So what has gone wrong?

If it were simply explicable in terms of "problem" students, those who already suffer from poor literacy and numeracy, that would be worrying enough, since keyboard skills have been seen as their salvation. But what is also alarming is to match the TES findings with last week's figures from Jordanhill teacher training college in Glasgow (Scotland's largest) - two independent surveys at different ends of the country on students of differing ability - and to find its worst indications endorsed. The majority of Jordanhill's postgraduate history and English students had not used a computer in any subject at secondary school. Some had to be shown how to switch one on. The record for IT education in Scotland is good, so there is no reason to assume that the picture in England and Wales is much different.

Compare these results with what will be expected of five-year-olds in England and Wales. Under the new curriculum Order published last week, these infants will be taught to use a variety of IT equipment and software "confidently and purposefully to communicate and handle information, and to support their problem-solving, recording and expressive work". Will the next generation of teachers be capable of succeeding where many of their predecessors have failed?

The Jordanhill researchers do not blame teachers for the failings of IT education (although many are still undoubtedly computer phobic), but a shortage of hardware and appropriate software. Without the basic tools no one can deliver the IT curriculum. There are still too few computers in schools, and Government statistics for provision are misleading - many of those included are already obsolete.

Where Sir Ron Dearing, in his review of the curriculum, was undoubtedly right was to recognise that computer literacy must be placed alongside reading, writing and number as one of the basic skills children will require in the 21st century. Already IT is recognised as part of the New Literacy - the ability to communicate by computer or modem, to browse through a CD-Rom, or to operate videos and cash machines.

So how does all this fit in with the remarkable findings in the National Council for Educational Technology's report, that the American Integrated Learning System being piloted in this country has led to 20-month gains in maths over a six-month trial period? Here is a computer system which shows how much IT can help pupils, particularly those with behaviour problems, to concentrate and to master basic skills. The results are encouraging, but must not be confused with IT competence.

Think of the solution for IT competence as a jig-saw. The many parts include teacher education, enough machines in class for computers to be thought of as an everyday tool rather than a special event, quality software, ease of access, dissemination of good practice, even ownership of a computer at home. If any part is missing, a jig-saw cannot be completed. Some of the missing pieces are now being exposed, and two of the most urgent priorities are clearly teacher education and provision of machines. Computer literacy has to begin in school, but giving IT its own place in the curriculum will not work without those essential pieces.

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