OK Computers

Originally Posted January 2012

Today the Guardian has launched a campaign to improve computing in schools. My memories of ICT in school are bad. The worst teachers, mundane use of PowerPoint presentations (check out Prezi instead), and an ICT syllabus that was boring and already felt out of date. We had to plough through the Microsoft Office oeuvre, especially using Access to build databases for a music festival (I’ve never come across anyone who actually uses Access). It was a bafflingly boring exercise in already archaic software.

It is right that the government is concerned about computing in education. The home of Babbage is now the residence of the word for word coma-inducing PowerPoint presentation. ICT in schools doesn’t begin to cover coding or design, and these are only just touched upon in the Computing syllabus (these are two distinct courses, often confused, the latter being taught in relatively few schools). I recently assisted students working on their ICT Diploma. The diploma was brought in by Gordon Brown in 2008 to replace the ailing ICT Btec. However, it remains unimaginative and unambitious. For one of the projects the students needed to create a fan page for their favourite two music artists (already a confused exercise, how many fan pages are dedicated totwo artists?). Instead of learning code and real web design they just used iweb, a handy but simple piece of web designing software from Apple. No real skills were learned, no real design or creativity allowed to take flight. It was all about what the computer does rather than how it does it.

Part of the problem is that the use of technology should not be taught in isolation but integrated into the whole syllabus. As far as learning goes, being able to use GarageBand isn’t particularly useful. Being able to record and edit your own book review podcast is. ICT as a subject tends to teach students what they already know and what will be hopelessly out of date in two years time.

Labour invested a huge amount of money in order to integrate technology and education. One of the most obvious attempts was the funding for Interactive Whiteboards (IWBs) in state schools in 2003-04. At vast expense (around £50m) the IWBs were meant to see the updating of classroom resources and education in general. There has, however, been much criticism as it is claimed they do not improve learning and can actually provoke even more unimaginative and staid lessons. This doesn’t mean IWBs and other new technologies should be written off. Labour invested massively in the hardware but very little in training teachers how to use it. As a result, overworked teachers do not have the time to learn the ins and outs of how to use IWBs effectively and therefore regress to evil PowerPoint (or just writing all over the board in permanent marker).

Last year I worked at Lambeth City Learning Centre as a media assistant. City Learning Centres (CLCs) were set up in 2001 as part of Labour’s Excellence in Cities programme which targeted some of the more deprived areas of the country. They were hubs of technology and expertise that ran workshops for students and teachers on how to use new technology, specifically aimed at helping schools use computers more effectively and in a more relevant and interesting way. Funding was cut completely in 2010 and now only a handful remain open (Lambeth being one), paid for directly by schools. IWB workshops were, and still are, in constant demand. Labour funded the hardware but not the training, the Tories seem to be cutting both.

The way forward is to invest in new technology for schools (with extensive training and support) that is integrated across subjects. Teachers don’t need to be forced to use computers in the form of tacked on curriculum objectives, but rather if they are given the tools and shown how to use them they’ll begin to use it effectively. Meanwhile, Computing should be about how computers work, coding, hardware, and operating systems. In this way technology education can be pushed further, while we also break down the false barrier between technology and the rest of the curriculum.

– Have a look at some of the great videos Lambeth CLC makes with students and parents from around London.

Janet Murray’s article investigates Computing vs ICT in more depth.

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