I have not read the OECD report Students, Computers and Learning: Making the Connection yet, but I will do over the next few days. At 204 pages it is going to take a while to digest and I am hoping that the report contains a few useful insights. I am pretty sure I know what it doesn’t say though. I’m pretty sure that the report does not say that pupils do not achieve more when they use computers. That is not to say there are not headteachers up and down the country making arrangements to meet with their IT Directors to “take a look” at the IT strategy after reading the headlines from the report circulated over the past few days. These are austere times and many beleaguered headteachers will take the opportunity to reduce capital spending. I was around in the late 8o’s and remember how quickly headteachers took action when the National Curriculum Orders for Technology negated the need for pupils to learn electronics and computer control. I know of curriculum leaders that lost their jobs on the back of that change and their soldering irons and BBC Model B computers and the control interfaces we all designed sold-off. That was the last we saw of computer programming in most schools until recent years when someone in the DfE, (or was it industry?) noticed that it had gone missing.
I wrote some years ago about how the dialogue surrounding ICT and computing was not robust or distinct enough to assure its place in the curriculum…
“I have had problems spotting the required debate and am surprised at just how uncommon any debate about the ‘vision’ of ICT, IT or Computing in a holistic sense is. I have come to doubt whether the need is appreciated by all but a tiny minority of practitioners. The rewards are clearly there to be had, but unless we begin to discuss in earnest the significant pedagogical issues that are provoked by the NC we will be fooling ourselves if we think we are providing any more value than the curriculum offers without it. Computing and ICT deserves and requires its own special place in shaping our pupils, and then society.”
It is true that there are few examples of how an increase of computers in a school can enhance pupil achievement. The BSF pilot, ICT Test Bed, confirmed that there was no automatic correlation and even when BSF was in full-flow instances of such positive improvement were rare. Although most of us, probably while presenting “Shift Happens” can describe how beneficial ICT is to the future of our economy; flexibility in the workforce; our pupils taking control of their lives; coping with exponential societal change and, ok I’ll say it, … “preparing pupils for jobs that don’t yet exist, using technologies that haven’t been invented, in order to solve problems that we don’t even know are problems yet.” If you are a headteacher trying to manage a dwindling budget and work your way up the league tables, your £80,£40,£20k IT maintenance/refreshment budget and £30 -£50k pa Director of ICT is going to appear surplus to requirements, if not downright extravagant in the light of these headlines. I have been told by two headteachers, whilst employed by them to Direct ICT, that good exam grades do not require the use of computers and the headlines alone of this report provides them both with a licence to act on that belief.
What seemed to have never been published from the IT Testbed project was the conclusion that success, or lack of it, in embedding ICT into the curriculum is correlated to the vision chased by the Senior Management of school. The OECD report states that “Schools have yet to take advantage of the potential of technology in the classroom to tackle the digital divide and give every student the skills they need in today’s connected world”. This is not a quantitative observation that can be measured by pupil:computer ratios, but a reflection on how schools use computers once the they have acquired them. Yet time and time again we still see schools spend large sums of money on infrastructure and never take time to support staff in developing all of those exciting pedagogical themes that we know are only possible when you introduce computers. If a teacher cannot use computers to provide pupils with memorable experiences then that funding is wasted and for the most part this seems to be true. I suspect that the ICT capability we expect most pupils to display on leaving school is higher than the average capability of teachers in most schools; and in that I refer only to a general capability, not profession specific capability.
I was fortunate to accompany one of my pupils to the Microsoft Office Specialist World Championships in Dallas this summer (#alfiegoestodallas). Alfie became UK champion in Word earlier in the year (with classmate Logan achieving UK 2nd) and achieved 7th in the World placings in Dallas. We were totally unprepared for the gravity of the competition in Dallas which was dominated by some very serious Asian teams. China, Singapore, Korea, Vietnam, Japan to name but a few, all presented large teams with coaches and team shirts who took the event very seriously indeed and left the competition with most of the prizes. The UK team comprised of two, Alfie and a Vietnamese student studying at a London university who represented the UK in the Excel competition. Although the OECD tables indicate that many of these countries devote less time to computer use in schools the correlation between MOS World Championship placings and OECD performance correlations is spookily high. MOS, a qualification that is not recognised in UK performance tables, it taken very seriously indeed it seems on the Asian continent. In Vietnam, for instance, I learned while in Dallas, most employers require MOS certification and pretty well all pupils sit the exam.
Sadly I have to say that my observations of some years ago still seem to be valid. We have failed to embed IT into the curriculum in a useful way and have not managed to even describe what that innovative and exciting use of technology might look like in subjects other than ICT. This has inhibited the vision of schools and resulted in low or rather tepid expectations of teachers use of IT. I know that this is not entirely fair to the many headteachers, teachers and schools who are progressive in their use of computers, but as a rule, if we trust the OECD findings it seems that the average use of IT across the curriculum is ineffective. Yet at the same time, we have outlawed a seemingly preferred route, the kind of focussed approach to development of IT skills, such as that embodied by MOS, that earns a high placing on the OECD league tables.
I now wonder how the priorities for IT lie and worry about how the workforce in education will come to realise the excitement and power of a digitally enhanced curriculum. I wonder if more headteachers will ever think past installation and begin to think about implementation and I wonder if someone will find a way of validating courses such as MOS in terms of school performance. Most of all I wonder if I will have to wait another 25 years before someone notices that these things have gone missing.