What in the world's going on?

4th August 1995 at 01:00
Every five years a global conference on educational technology is held to exchange views and information.

Angela McFarlane joined delegates in Birmingham last week to find enlightenment.

If a week is a long time in politics, five years is a lifetime in educational technology. The World Conference Computers in Education (WCCE) is an international event held every five years; providing an opportunity to reflect on the wider issues concerning educational technology, and to consider the implications for the future.

In 1990 it was in Sydney, the next will be in Copenhagen, but for 1995 it was the turn of Birmingham to host the 1,200 delegates who came from 54 countries to contribute to a week-long exchange of views and information relating to the use of computers in education from pre-school through to higher education. At such a huge event, with up to eight simultaneous sessions running in parallel, no two delegates actually attended the same conference.

The week was however punctuated with key presentations which everyone could attend. The opening keynote speeches were from Craig Barrett of Intel and Jonathan Lazarus of Microsoft interesting choices as previously the WCCE conferences had been opened by leading educationalists. There was a general feeling that the message from these commercial interests was that schools needed better, faster computers and more whizzy software. Whether this is true is questionable and the consensus seemed to be that these contributions did little to move on the debate about computers in education.

Fortunately the lunch-time lectures were a very different matter. Mike Fischer of Research Machines proved that "middle- class businessmen" (his description) can indeed stimulate a lively discussion in his presentation which focused on the problems of literacy. He pointed out that it is hard to see how children can have access to the new literacies of information technology when one in four have not mastered the traditional literacies of reading and numeracy.

His solution was the use of Integrated Learning Systems (ILS), a suggestion which caused some lively exchanges at question time. Mike Fischer's assertion that his questioners should reserve comment until they had seen such a system in use in school was difficult to counter. In fact he even went so far as to suggest delegates go to the drop-in classroom at the conference which was showing the Global ILS, a rival to the SuccessMaker system his own company markets.

The issue of which skills should be developed was one which cropped up again and again at conference sessions. Gabriel Goldstein, a London-based HMI, gave a probing lecture questioning whether information technology was at the heart or the margin of schools. He made the important point that information technology should not simply be about making things easier, it should also be about making things harder. Rather than simply providing a labour-saving device it should be used to develop deeper understanding, as learners are freed to grapple with the substance of the task in hand.

One presenter raised the issue of computer science in school. Although this issue has been largely settled in this country, where computer science is far from a mainstream subject in the school curriculum, the debate on its rightful place rages on in other countries. Chris Stephenson from Toronto, Canada, runs undergraduate computer science courses. She lamented the poor preparation of students entering these programmes from school. Not because they could not program in high-level computer languages but because they lacked problem solving and communications skills essential to the team based, modern programming demands.

This mis-match, and the underlying misconception of the demands of computer science, she believes is at the heart of the failure to attract female students to computer science. If girls realised it was about communicating and solving problems collaboratively, they would find computer science more attractive as a career choice.

The "National Policy" sessions at the conference presented a depressingly uniform view of school curriculums becoming more and more politically driven, with an emphasis on content knowledge and testing at the expense of skill development. Sound familiar? Again the point emerged that this is not the kind of education that computers can best support.

Another common clash of expectations emerged in the "Initial Teacher Training" strand. Student teachers are expected by schools to have good information technology skills which they can pass on to existing staff. Students may or may not have these skills, but as they spend more of their time in schools they expect trained teachers to be able to show them how to use computers in the classroom. Neither side has their needs met in the majority of cases.

The message I have come away from the WCCE with is this: there is a huge gap between the information technology found in education and the experiences that learners need for whatever they do next. This problem is shared across the world, and has not been helped by the contributions of governments to curriculum definition. In trying to determine what is taught in schools, to prepare children for what they believe industry wants, politicians have shown a remarkable lack of insight into education and industry.

But what has this to do with computers I hear you cry? Perhaps little to do with computers, but everything to do with computers in education. It is a mark of the maturity of the debate at WCCE that it was education rather than computers that enjoyed the centre stage.

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