Unleash old ties and unfurl the sails of ICT

John Davitt

Multimedia writer and keynote speaker John Davitt opens the show with a challenge to release creativity

The SETT conference and exhibition in Glasgow next week comes at an almost perfect time in the school year to aid purposeful reflection.

Sandwiched between a few weeks of school and the tattie break, it provides a chance to pause and ask what we are doing with the new tools at our disposal to make learning as effective and delightful as it can be.

One key message for teachers will be that it is time to trust themselves. Within a curriculum framework there should be space for teachers to take the kitbag of curriculum content, learning styles, formative assessment and the tools of information technology and deploy them as they see fit to make the best difference for the children they teach.

This year the theme might be fewer set ideas and more flexibility for teachers. There is a growing sense of the need to give teachers the confidence to do things differently with the new tools available. In learning, we know that one size never fits all.

The tectonic plates of curriculum fixity are once more on the move and as a result some landmass will disappear. Information technology as a curriculum subject may be an early casualty which could help to unleash its true catalytic qualities as an agent of deep and wide learning opportunities.

Come to think of it, the Victorians had few lessons on using slate, or classrooms dedicated to its use.

Other subject barriers will also blur. As Margaret Doran of Stirling Council put it in her statement in June to the parliamentary education committee's inquiry on the school curriculum, "Are we to continue to teach compartmental subjects or do we develop the capacity of every teacher to teach the whole child?"

If we trust teachers to get it right in their own contexts, the cross-curricular aspirations of many past curriculum designers may be an inevitability. Information technology is poised as the enabling tool to make this happen.

To balance rigour with flexibility is the next challenge. The central model of learning which each school must develop and adjust for itself should include range and diversity along with precision and perseverance. As if by magic, just as our knowledge of the brain and learning theory is developing, we have new classroom tools to help us.

Carefully used, data projectors linked to computers can fill a classroom wall with a still or moving image and provide opportunities for showing the big picture of some topic at the start of a lesson. Interactive whiteboards can provide teachers and pupils with a visual, kinesthetic and tactile learning opportunity. Animation and sound recording allow students to tell their story in mediums over which they have considerable mastery.

Another challege now is to get beyond the office mentality in terms of physical environments and software used in schools. So much of what we have from most software providers is suites of software developed for the business world, given a retread and sold to schools as state of the art.

This would be OK if schools and offices were similar but of course schools are far more challenging and complex places. Perhaps if Microsoft were really serious about education they would develop some software called School.

Perhaps the homonym ossification, meaning "hardened conventionality", gives us a clue as to the software cycle we need to break out of. "Officication" is the enemy of flexibility. We have hardware a-plenty but our software toolset is still poor in terms of providing cognitive challenge.

What we need now are software tools which make it easy to integrate media, show up connections and share. Software that allows students and teachers to mark up existing resources such as web pages and images and add value through annotation and linking. A resource that allows you to tell and share your story in the tools for your time from Stornaway to Soweto.

Ideally these new tools should be free to all, non-proprietary and built around open file formats like the Jpeg for pictures and MP3 file format for sound. There is a historical precedent. Back in the 1700s ships could navigate but not accurately, because longitude, that second fix on position, was still 60 years from being set. Without it no captain knew with certainty the position of his craft and many ships foundered.

In one sense we live in similar times. Technology allows learners to cover great distance at a single mouse click. We can copy and paste with ease and send messages to flit the globe. But often genuine challenge is missing and we are not sure where we are or what to do with what we have found.

The longitude prize was offered by the British government in 1714 for the precise determination of a ship's longitude. Here's an idea: why not offer government and commercial sponsorship for a prize for the development of software to help us find our digital longitude? Free to the world, open source ... unsponsored ... allowing learners to turn resources into unique and shareable learning maps. That might help set flexibility at the heart of the curriculum.

New Tools for Learning: Finding our Digital Longitude by John Davitt will be published by Network Educational Press in January

SETT Opening keynote speech by John Davitt, Wednesday, 10.45am

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John Davitt

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