Should computers be teaching machines or learning tools? Stephen Heppell poses two contrasting classroom scenarios a decade from now
The only confident prediction that can be made about the future of the teaching profession is that it is bound to be uncertain. We are not so much in a sprint race with countries around the world to be the first to build a world-class education system as facing an orienteering challenge: never mind how fast can we run, the bigger problem is which direction to take.
The short history of computers in schools offers an interesting insight into what has and hasn't worked in the past. Professional development has tended to focus on the mechanics of technology: how to connect a dot-matrix printer, centre a heading in Wordwise on a BBC B, change fonts printing from a 480Z, master tables in Word and achieve text wrap around graphics.
Sadly, there has been little reflection on the changing processes that these difficult-to-master technologies support. Clearly the most relevant question is not "how do I make it work?" but "what can I do with it?" This points to a real issue at the heart of all our learning futures: are computers teaching machines (to be mastered technically), where the answer to "what can I do with it?" is to use it for the standard and predictable delivery of a static curriculum? Or are they learning tools (to be mastered pedagogically) where the answer is less certain, as computers take our children not only further and faster than we expected but to areas that were never anticipated?
The two scenarios offered below represent contrasting views of the impact ICT might have on teachers and teaching in the future.
Both are possible; now it is time for a clearer national debate about which is desirable. And now that the work to repair two decades of neglect of literacy and numeracy is finally well under way, maybe it is time for that debate to begin?
Professor Stephen Heppell is director of the Ultralab research unit at Anglia Polytechnic University in Chelmsford. Ultralab houses the National Archive of Educational Computing
CASE STUDY 1
Rachel is a recently qualified teacher at HighTech High (motto "We aim high to hit our targets"). Rachel needed to be highly capable at using a computer in geography, her specialist subject at university, and was able to do some original and complex meteorological modelling as part of her PGCE project. None of this, though, has proved to be useful in her teaching career where vast suites of networked computers are delivering a tightly-tested curriculum, from a vast commercial question bank, to individual students.
With each child's performance and aggregate scores linked to their homes, Rachel's main need for expertise is as a technician, keeping the teaching machines running, and as a communicator. Most days she fends off disappointed parents ("but he is so confident at Scouts and swimming club, it's as though this print-out is for another boy") and parents who object to the American curriculum ("I'm sorry Mrs Brown - it's part of the deal we bought into with our local provider, the software is so much cheaper, and they all love Robin Williams's voices").
Like her partner, who spends his day scrutinising diagnostic data from an engine-analysis computer at a car dealership, Rachel's skill is in looking at the tables of moving aggregates and intervening by prescribing remedial early morning courses. She has a string of certificates testifying to her capability as a network engineer and data diagnostician. She represents a considerable investment by her employers, but her aim is to move into a more creative job.
"Teaching can be satisfying," Rachel reflects. "Sometimes, out shopping, I meet children that I manage and I can remember all their numbers, but it's not the career I expected it to be somehow."
CASE STUDY 2
Hilary is a returning teacher, attracted back by the ethos of tiny Apollo Community School, down the road from where she lives. She had no experience of either the few big workstations scattered around the school corridors or the huge variety of cheap and cheerful Java-based tablets that most children had in their backpacks. But she can see the children are confident and capable with technology and that what they need is her help and advice with their learning.
Hilary's original expertise was in English, with a soft spot for metaphysical poetry. She could see immediately that while the product of creative writing hadn't changed much, the processes involved certainly had. Hilary needed immediate help exploring some of them before offering formative advice. She was cautious about the new "finessing" function on their server's word-processor, for example, and had already volunteered to be part of a project evaluating the impact on her children's writing.
So much to do, so many paths to explore, the children constantly surprising everyone with new capabilities. Hilary takes her shared role as action researcher seriously and has developed a special relationship with many of the families around the school.
Thanks to a vigourous community of fellow English specialists in a virtual corner of the Internet, she is also able to contribute to and learn from the rapidly evolving subject area that she loves. Her professional development is informed by colleagues around the world.
As a teacher returner, Hilary might not recognise much of the current broad definition of literacy, but learning hasn't changed much - and she still loves every minute of making it happen.
Does it all fit into such a hectic week? "Ah," says Hilary. "Had we but world enough and time..."