Putting the edge into education

3rd November 2000 at 00:00
Chris Johnston meets a professor who sees teaching and technology together YOU might expect someone who specialises in new technology to hold down three different jobs in a year. But Angela McFarlane is anything but a fly-by-night, gadding about from job to job in the volatile world of the new media.

Twelve months ago, she was still firmly installed as director of the centre for educational ICT, at Homerton College, Cambridge. It was during her 11 years in this post that she built a reputation as a leading researcher in the application of information and communications technology in schools.

In January, she was lured away to become the first director of evidence and practice for the British Educational Communications and Technology Agency, the quango which advises

the Government on school


But no sooner had she become firmly installed in her new job, which involved shuttling backwards and forwards between Cambridge and Becta's offices in Coventry, than a new job beckoned - as professor of education at Bristol University.

It was a chance she could not resist. Not only was Bristol her old university - she completed both her degree there (a BSc in zoology) and later her doctorate - it was also a rare opportunity to snap up a research chair in education. She didn't hesitate.

Having taken up the post last month, she intends to use it to raise the profile of research into ICT's application in schools and colleges, an area she feels has been neglected.

She finds the distinct lack of interest from Britain's leading educational researchers in investigating the applications of ICT in schools "genuinely mystifying". Their failure to recognise how pervasive technology in the classroom is becoming could be a consequence of their age, she says.

Nevertheless, McFarlane firmly believes education and ICT must be closely wedded. Many ICT studies have inconclusive results, because they are sometimes a "documentation of an innovation without any well-developed theoretical underpinning".

"Until we have some crisper theories driving the ICT education research agenda, we are not going to get much achieved."

Nevertheless, McFarlane says that technology's place in education is assured - "you cannot make a case for excluding it". The Goverment, through initiatives such as the National Grid for Learning, is very much driving the technological push and the expectations of both pupils and parents is forcing ICT up the agenda in schools.

"There is a strong parental belief that access to a computer will help children's education." Just how accurate that belief is depends, she points out, on what they do with the machines.

Games might still be the most popular activity on computers for children, according to Bristol University's Screen Play research project, but McFarlane says they get a bad press. "We tend to be terribly snooty about games playing in this country, but actually there is a lot of genuine educational value in some computer games, and we really musn't lump them all together - many of them are far from mindless."

She is also concerned about the growing tendency to use technology simply to deliver content, rather than getting children to do more creative tasks with it. This reinforces the idea that children should leave school knowing a specific list of things, McFarlane says. "That's not what modern life is about - it's about being able to find things out, interpret and manipulate information and create personal knowledge and then apply it. Sitting and consuming pre-determined bodies of digital content - or any other kind of content - is not, in my view, the best way to develop those skills."

McFarlane says the national curriculum is evolving by stealth, particularly by the literacy and numeracy strategies in primary schools. The distinct failure to integrate ICT into the strategies is another disappointment.

"While it is important to be literate and numerate, it is not enough."

Despite the focus on ICT in education in recent years,

technology has still not fundamentally changed the way schools operate, partly because many teachers are still resistant to it.

It is not fair, however, to blame teachers for not using ICT, she says. "If they believed that ICT-based methods were the best way of educating children, they would use them. We cannot prove, at the moment, that these methods are the best way of preparing kids for SATs or GCSEs - we just do not know the answer to that."

Professor McFarlane is unlikely to run out of research projects any time soon.

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