Platform: IT only as good as its user

27th June 1997 at 01:00
Fifteen years ago, as a young and inexperienced classroom teacher, I met my first microcomputer. This happened against a background of politicians and educational gurus enthusing about the impending information technology revolution. Within months, that revolution seemed plausible. Rarely more than a page behind me in the manuals, my class of 11-year-olds quickly began to word-process stories, to store details of the school library in a database and, to my amazement, many showed themselves capable of beginning to program the computer itself.

Watching and listening as these typical children revealed aptitudes and enthusiasms well beyond those suggested by their work with traditional tools of learning, I began to believe in the potential of computers to transcend conventional expectations of learning through the evidence of my own eyes and ears.

Today, after 15 years of working with children and with student teachers, my enthusiasm for teaching with computers has been modified by experience and battered by disappointments, but it remains essentially strong. So, it saddened me to read in the daily press recently headlines calling for a counter-revolution - "Teacher says computers are useless for primary children" and "Time-out for school computers?"

The source for the first headline was Pat O'Donnell, an experienced primary teacher from East Kilbride, while the second represented the published opinions of Gordon Graham, professor of moral philosophy and director of the Centre for Philosophy, Technology and Society at Aberdeen University. Arguing that pupils spend too much time over keyboards and watching screens at the expense of time learning the basics of mathematics and English language, Mr O'Donnell called for the computers not to be used until the basics have been acquired and until no sooner than the first years in secondary school. For Professor Graham, simple postponement would probably not satisfy. He called for a reassessment of the value of computers for learning.

It is easy to sympathise with Mr O'Donnell. While it is some time since I shared his day-to-day experience, I do remember it and I have three young children to help me do so. Like him, I worry about how well they are learning the basics of English language and mathematics. I worry, too, about the time they would spend with television and computer games and their aversion to reading.

Finally, I share his concern about the value of much that is done with computers in schools. Eighty to 90 per cent of the computer use I see in schools is, to quote him, "useless". I see children practise basic mathematics and language skills using software that adopts Victorian models of learning based on repetition, punishment and reward and which takes its educational philosophy from the electronic games arcade.

Similarly, I see pupils use powerful word-processors like typewriters to produce final copy of their writing and never employing the central attribute of that software, its potential to make redrafting, the improvement of writing, feasible for the youngest of writers.

Most regrettably, I don't see young children using programming languages like Logo, as many began to do in the mid-eighties, to control computers and to acquire that most desirable of states - the mastery of technology. In effect, I don't see computers used as the powerful interactive learning tools, with the potential to promote learner autonomy, that I know them to be.

Professor Graham, too, makes many valid criticisms. I could not agree more with his concerns about computer software which does too much for children, providing them with answers, thus denying them the opportunity to learn through the process of problem solving which leads to the answer. Equally his assertion that any technology is only as good as the purposes to which it is put has my fullest agreement and lies at the heart of the criticisms I have made above of much of the use of computers in schools.

However, Professor Graham makes other points that suggest a major misunderstanding of the nature of information technology in education. First and most serious, he is clearly not aware of the potential of computers with the appropriate software and used well, not to detract from the development of creative, literary and mathematical attributes but to offer young learners a powerful tool with which to enhance and to accelerate that development.

Using a word-processor to facilitate the process of drafting, using a database to interrogate and to identify meaningful concepts in data and using programming or authoring software to model mathematical concepts can lead to a transformation of educational expectations for young pupils. Second, the suggestion that advanced word-processing and graphics software have produced "some of the greatest rubbish" and evidence of "how few people have a talent for art and design" is misleading and elitist. Software does not produce bad writing or design: the people who use the software are responsible for the ultimate quality.

Powerful software has clearly resulted in more people feeling they can write and design. The result may well be the production of more bad writing and design, but this is not a problem for the citizens of a democratic society. If more people feel able to express themselves because the technology has freed them from the tyranny of editorial elites and the soul-destroying barriers formerly imposed by the production trades such as typesetting, then this is a good thing. If as potential consumers we think a product is rubbish we can easily reject it.

The real potential of computers in education has not been realised. Much of current use is subject to serious criticism. The solution, however, is to identify and to promote the good, not to give up on what is potentially a transforming change in education.

John Robertson is head of the department of curricular studies in the faculty of education at Paisley University.

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