"Unless you give pupils access to the technology, it can't be central to the learning process"
Not many people have been involved with technology in education for 30 years, but Steve Bacon has managed to notch up three decades in the field. A new phase in his career began in February when he became the first general secretary of the National Association of Advisers for Computers in Education (NAACE), after being an advisor for Derbyshire since 1981.
Bacon began his career as a maths teacher in Wood Green, North London, in 1966, leaving swinging London behind two years later for Oxfordshire. By 1970 he was head of maths and was one of the first to teach computer studies in a British school the same year.
He wrote a syllabus for the subject and became its chief examiner in the south of England before joining ICL's Computer Education in Schools project in 1973, quickly becoming its director - a post he held until moving to Derbyshire LEA.
Back in the early Eighties, Bacon was one of only a handful of IT advisers. He says it was not until 1984 that some of his counterparts decided to set up a professional association. Part of the working group that ran the first national conference, he has "lived and breathed" NAACE ever since as a member of its executive committee and now the board of management.
Bacon is the association's public face, representing it to organisations such as the Department for Education and Employment, the British Educational Communications and Technology Agency and the Teacher Training Agency (TTA).
In 30 years, he has seen everything from punch cards to dot-matrix printers come and go, but despite the promise computers offer they have so far failed to significantly change the way education is delivered in schools or how they operate.
Bacon says information and communications technology (ICT) is slowly changing what happens in the classroom, but acknowledges that the challenge still remains to ensure it is seen as part of the total learning process, rather than something tagged on at the end. Lack of funding for equipment is a prime reason why computers have not had more of an impact in schools, he says. "With the best will in the world, one BBC micro in a secondary school with 800 pupils is not going to make much difference."
In his view, Britain is only now reaching the stage where there are enough machines in schools, largely due to National Grid for Learning funding. "Unless you give pupils access to the technology, it can't be central to the learning process," Bacon argues. There is no magic ratio of students per computer, but there has to be enough for students to have reasonably easy access when they want to do some wok using ICT.
Further, he believes it should be up to pupils, rather than teachers, to decide when they should be using technology. "We don't tell them when to pick up their pencils, so we shouldn't be telling them when to pick up the computer." There is plenty of scope in the national curriculum for using ICT in this way, but Bacon says it is not always explicit. Consequently, teachers need training so that the opportunities to use it become obvious, and he hopes the New Opportunities FundTTA programme will help.
Although some are very enthusiastic about ICT, Bacon notes that not all teachers have the confidence or, more crucially, the time to get up to speed. "Maybe we've got to be clever and look at ways of empowering teachers that do not rely on huge amounts of in-service training time," he says. Increasing the number owning a computer is one solution, but other schemes to improve levels of skill and confidence - particularly after NOF training ends - are needed as well.
At the same time, developments such as broadband (very high-speed Internet access) are starting to reach schools and Bacon says it is up to NAACE to keep abreast of these changes and help its members so they can help schools. "They haven't got the time to keep on top of the changes in technology and the implications those changes have for teaching and learning." The association now has over 600 members. Representatives of commercial organisations can now join, reflecting their growing importance in ICT for schools.
NAACE last month held conferences on broadband as part of an attempt to get advisers thinking about how new technologies can be used in schools. Bacon says it is not always self-evident how an electronic whiteboard, for example, can benefit a teacher in class.
On a wider level, he believes the association needs to do more to raise issues and say "this is where we need to go next, so that those who can influence or develop policy at the national level respond".
Asked what the priorities in the next few years will be, Bacon again returns to training for teachers and strategic leaders, as well as strengthening ICT's role in delivering the curriculum. He adds that a debate on the future shape of the curriculum is necessary and expects next year's NAACE conference in Blackpool to focus on the issue. "We're only just getting to the stage where we can start thinking seriously about whether some things we do remain relevant and whether there are other things we ought to be doing to equip children for learning, given that the learning tools are becoming more powerful than anything we've ever known in the past, so that we raise the whole quality of the learning process with children making intelligent use of ICT."