Where Spain leads, our ICT should follow

13th April 2007 at 01:00
Phil Thane is a part-time teacher and ICT specialist

ICT in schools needs a radical shake-up. It is hugely expensive and it is not delivering.

So the Assembly government comes up with an ICT strategy group to devise a real revolutionary strategy. But its recently published document is plain dismal. How has a nation once famed for its firebrands come to this?

We don't have dragons in Wales any more. This is no radical manifesto for improving education via computer technology. Instead, we get this: "The working group has identified a set of aspirations for using ICT to transform learning and teaching, improve organisational effectiveness with the ultimate aims of raising levels of learners' ICT capability and standards of attainment across the board."

All worthy enough, but nowhere does the document suggest how any of them might be achieved.

No one will dispute the paper's argument that all learners should be empowered to use technology effectively to enhance their learning and attainment, regardless of ability or previous knowledge. But you will search in vain if you are expecting any guidance on how that might happen.

Unless someone takes a lead, creates a real strategy and practises it, all this is just pleasant-sounding background noise.

Relax. We've got a strategy group without any answers. It gets worse when the paper suggests the divide between children and young people who have access to ICT at home and those who do not should be addressed. Of course it should, and we need you to take a lead. That is what the Assembly government and all its committees and working groups are for.

It doesn't have to be like this. Extremadura is an autonomous region in the west of Spain. It is bigger than Wales but has a similar-sized population.

It is mountainous and wet and survives chiefly by exporting food and water to the rest of Spain. It has its own language, too, though most people speak Spanish.

Extremadura was never industrialised, just poor. In 1998, Juan Carlos Rodriguez Ibarra, president of the regional government, took a bold decision to make sure everyone in the region would be included in the "information society". The essential principle was that every citizen should be IT literate and have internet access, regardless of where they lived or who they were.

This required serious spending on infrastructure. Extremadura was developing a regional intranet and converting the whole area to a single "wide area network." By the end of 2002, it had linked 1,478 government offices and schools.

Of course, many citizens could not afford their own computers, so the government set up 32 IT centres throughout the region in which local people could get access and free basic training.

The next step was to make computing affordable. Basic PCs are not expensive, but proprietary software most definitely is. It is quite common for software to cost two or three times the price of the machine it sits on. By saving money through using free open-source software, Extremadura had achieved the amazing goal of having one PC for every two students in its schools. The ratio in Wales is currently 1:8 in primaries and 1:5 in secondary schools.

I want to see a truly world-class ICT-based education in Wales for all our students, schoolchildren and adult learners. I want to see so many terminals in schools that no one ever has to queue or share. If Extremadura can do it, we can.

Download the consultation document by the schools ICT strategy group: www.ngfl-cymru.org.uk You can submit comments before March 31. See also www.linex.org (in Spanish)

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