With a government ICT policy in the offing, John Galloway gets his wish list in first
"Technology is at the core of virtually every aspect of our daily lives and work, and we must leverage it to provide engaging and powerful learning experiences and content," trumpets the introduction to a Government plan for the use of technology in schools. The government of the USA, that is, in its National Educational Technology Plan launched last year.
Will a similar affirmation herald the introduction of our own governments strategy for ICT in schools when it arrives later this month? We can but hope. Although there is plenty of scope for not just broad guidance, but also positive leadership from above.
So far the record has not been good. From halving the funding for broadband in schools within months of taking office; to exhibiting an attitude to schools' use of ICT that is relaxed almost to the point of disinterest during the international technology festival that is BETT; the omission of ICT from the Revised Teacher's Standards; to a gradual awakening to the impact it can have. What can we hope to see when a strategy or, better still, strategy appears?
It is not likely to be a weighty document, given this government's focus on keeping guidance light. In fact it's rumoured that there are just three projected outcomes: excellent teaching; system efficiencies; intelligent school customers. We'll know soon enough because former Becta head of research Vanessa Pittard (above) is writing it for the Department for Education (DfE).
There will probably be room for the return of computer science to our classrooms – something that many people in the education sector have been requesting for some time, given added weight by bodies such as NAACE, BCS, UKIE and the Royal Society – and the recent speech by Google boss Eric Schmidt who expressed amazement that the country that invented computers doesn't teach its children how to write software for them. This would be no surprise following the announcement by David Willetts of support for Behind the Screen, a pilot programme with programming and computer studies in mind.
Creative industries need 10,000 qualified entrants every year
Even then this could be a red herring, given that universities minister Willetts is from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, not Education, so his motivation may be different. He no doubt is aware, for instance, that the video gaming industry, contributes over £1 billion per annum to the national purse, but that further development is threatened by the lack of programmers. One estimate suggests that we need another 10,000 qualifying every year to remain competitive.
Ed Vaizey from the Department for Culture, Media and Sport will also be cheering such developments following the publication earlier this year of the Livingstone Hope Report which considered the needs of UK's video games and visual effects industries and called for just this sort of initiative in schools.
Perhaps the interest of these other ministries will help prompt the Department for Education to reaffirm the place of ICT in the timetable – although with the National Curriculum review still some months from reporting it seems unlikely that they would want to pre-empt this. It also seems unlikely that the English Baccalaureate will be extended to include disciplines from technology or the visual arts where ICT plays a significant role. And despite the very public commitment to STEM which, of course, has an important, integral technology component.
The curriculum could also recognise that all of us, adults, children and young people, are consumers of a variety of new media, on screen – on the web and on the go. To properly use and understand these channels it is important to also become creators. Just as writing goes with reading, so knowing how to create video games should go with playing them. Google boss Eric Schmidt was absolutely right.
We need to understand why and how ICT is effective in helping raise standards
Alongside this could come a recognition of the impact technology has on teaching and learning. It is not always clear why, or how, this is, but it is generally agreed that technology helps raise standards. A commitment to increasing our understanding through sustained, co-ordinated research will help amplify the effect, with any findings informing an on-going programme of teacher education to ensure that all staff know how, and when, these powerful tools can make an impact. It is not enough to assume that because we increasingly live our lives online the necessary skills are being learnt.
No matter how well trained staff are, they are greatly hampered if the resources aren't up to scratch. The coalition's austerity measures have seen schools downgrading their investments in ICT. Not only procurement of new kit, but also replacement of redundant machines will be affected. Should an economic Plan B ever come into being then stimulus measures through supporting school infrastructures would be a welcome place to start.
In the meantime we could think about harnessing the power of the gadgets that just about every secondary school pupil, and a fair few in primary, have in their pockets. Mobile devices have excited educators for some years, maybe it is time to get them out of the bags and pockets and on to the desks. That this technology permeates every part of our lives is a given, but will a government slowly awakening to the possibilities be ready to also acknowledge the prevalence of personal devices and find a way to harness their potential?
Already projects such as Apps for Good are demonstrating how a place can be found in schools for mobile devices, and for creativity. But these activities are usually outside the confines of the timetable, with achievement measured not with certificates but with earnings.
Do schools really want to shut the virtual school gates on social media?
Apps for Good also demonstrates the role of ICT in creating active e-citizens, explicitly challenging students to find ways of using technology to benefit communities. Increasingly having a voice heard involves lobbying and organising online, getting a message across and bringing like-minded people together, often virtually. Social media are changing how we connect, create and communicate. If schools are to prepare their charges for the world beyond then can they really shut the virtual school gates on them?
There are also those for whom technology is their voice. Students who would otherwise be unable to connect or communicate at all, who use communication aids to speak, and specialist peripheral devices to use a computer. They are not alone in our classrooms in needing additional resources in order to do what their peers take for granted. While other areas of the department, the SEN section, or even other ministries, Health or Business, have roles here, a lead should be given to ensure that the goal of access for all is realised (see "Worries over special needs axe left by Becta void").
The publication of a forward thinking ICT in Schools strategy would be cheered across the sector. The Department for Education should take this moment as an opportunity to shift any perceptions that it is controlled by staid traditionalists only interested in history and Latin, and lead schools in preparing children and young people for the challenges of the 21st Century.
John Galloway is an adviser, consultant and writer, specialising in the use of technology to support special educational needs (SEN) and inclusion. He is the author of Harnessing Technology for Every Child Matters and Personalised Learning and runs his own blog.