Use your imagination

3rd January 2003 at 00:00
Doug Brown argues that the imaginative use of ICT needs to be embedded if children and their teachers are to benefit fully.

Albert Einstein once said: "Computers are incredibly fast, accurate and stupid; humans are incredibly slow, inaccurate and brilliant. Together they are powerful beyond imagination." Of itself, ICT could be of no great value, but teachers who understand its potential can take learning experiences to new heights. Computers + people = progress.

The problem (or opportunity) is having the imagination to see what ICT can help us achieve for teaching and learning. Even experts within the IT industry can miss its potential. In the 1940s, the head of IBM predicted that five computers would be sufficient for the world. Bill Gates, co-founder of Microsoft, declared in 1993 that Microsoft wasn't interested in the internet!

In education we need people to understand the technology and be open to its potential. Unless we have this, we will miss its transformational possibilities.

The opportunities offered by ICT are central to much of education reform. First, it sustains concentration. A nursery teacher once described to me how ICT offers interaction, inspiration, feedback and fun. ICT stimulates and motivates learners. Students can be independent and control their own learning. ICT encourages differentiation, providing timely feedback. It also provides the tools for collaboration and lets people network with others based in another part of the country or even on a different continent. It enables people to understand other cultures and encourages mutual respect - important in today's turbulent times.

The sustained investment in ICT by the Government over the last four years has included personal access to computers and laptops for some teachers, internet for over 99 per cent of schools in England with pupil:computer ratios at a record high. ICT can raise self-esteem. It can start a process where success breeds success. This isn't to minimise the efforts of teachers but it shows how ICT can act as a catalyst for learning. ICT is being used more effectively throughout schools and is having an impact on teaching styles, on approaches to learning and in planning.

Research from Becta (British Educational Communications Technology Agency) shows that schools with good ICT provision outperform those without. ICT alone cannot take us beyond our imagination; that happens only when the link between people and computers is successfully established - where teachers' ICT capability enables successful use in management, teaching and learning terms.

Computer scientist Ray Kurzweil has predicted more change in the next two decades than in the last century. Our children's world will advance beyond recognition in those 20 years and we have to prepare them.

I believe there are five key issues. Concurrent learning means that, with developments like Curriculum Online, children using a home PC linked to the school network will be able to visit school virtually in the evening and use the same learning materials. We'll also see and experience cinematic learning as children grow up in a visual world where multimedia influences their learning and development. If we can use the stimulation of electronic gaming to support learning it will be a powerful tool. Third, we'll see more collaborative learning, with many online communities. More than 20,000 school leaders have already signed up for the NCSL (National College for School Leadership) and evidence from GridClub shows that collaborative learning is taking place among seven to 11-year-olds.

Communicative learning will also become more widespread - some children already work at home and email it back to school. How can teachers cope with getting 30 to 300 such emails? We have to ensure that when it happens, it can be managed. Finally, consensual learning will make the child a partner in learning, empowered by access to knowledge and a variety of learning environments. Teachers and pupils will share learning objectives. It will not just be about teachers transferring knowledge to children.

Change is taking place; many schools are developing capabilities for learning centres rather than classrooms, with content distributed on a network. Learning is more personalised, and the rhythm and pace is changing. Soon, schools will give virtual access 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. The limiting factor will not be the pace of the technology, but our own imagination.

Doug Brown is the DFES divisional manager, ICT in School development. He was talking to George Cole

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