A long time coming – acceptance that it's not about the ICT but changing the learning and teaching
Interviewing Anthony SalcitoLearning with ICT: Microsoft’s Anthony Salcito in the Broadclyst TV studio hotseat. A previous incumbent was Michael Gover MP, grilled over funding the school hallThe OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) has confirmed what advocates of ICT for learning have said for years – that putting computers in front of children does not improve results.

And OECD Pisa boss Andreas Schleicher, in his foreword to the new report Students, Computers and Learning: Making the Connection, spells out what’s needed – “To deliver on the promises technology holds, countries need to invest more effectively and ensure that teachers are at the forefront of designing and implementing this change.”

His message is important, because without a clear context the report’s data can spark headlines like this one from The Register“Don't bother buying computers for schools says OECD report”. Suddenly, many journalists whose very livelihoods depend on ICT are wondering why teachers and children should be using it. That’s probably why the BBC has published Andreas Schleicher’s report statement as a news story in its own right, “School technology struggles to make an impact”.

'No noticeable improvement in performance'

Andreas SchleicherOECD's Andreas SchleicherAccording to the OECD, “even countries which have invested heavily in information and communication technologies (ICT) for education have seen no noticeable improvement in their performances in PISA results for reading, mathematics or science”.

The digital skills of students in 31 countries and economies were assessed by “using a keyboard and mouse to navigate texts by using tools like hyperlinks, browser button or scrolling, in order to access information, as well as make a chart from data or use on-screen calculators”.

Two of those biggest investors in ICT for education are the UK and USA who neatly sidestepped these tests completely. The OECD lessons for them come from the 'Go Compare'-like comparisons of student perfomance and, yes, there is interesting feedback on ICT take-up and use. But for those on the school side who want to make a difference to learning and teaching with technology there isn't a great deal to justify a full read rather than a skim.

For Mark Chambers, CEO of Naace, the professional organisation for those working with ICT in education, the report has meant, among other things, darting in and out of broadcast studios across the country, trying to deliver the antidote. "Naace feels that the best way to maximise the impact of technology on learning is by learning with technology through creating and making," he says.

"That’s because:

  • "Technology, when used properly, accelerates achievement, and, in certain circumstances, radically does so;
  • "Curricula which do not integrate technology are regarded as irrelevant by students, and are not effective preparation for life;
  • "The appropriate use of technology makes learning processes more enjoyable.

"We know of many schools doing all these things very successfully. So when we see a report which implies that technology makes no difference, we really do have to wonder how this may have come about."

Mark ChambersMark Chambers, CEO of NaaceRather than preach to the ICT unconverted about the joys of technology, he prefers to use a simple analogy: "Compare learning to a journey. If you make the journey on foot, it will take time. You can speed things up by running, getting fitter, buying trainers and so on, but if you want to radically speed up the journey, you might buy a bike. But this entails two things that must also happen – you have to buy the bike, then you have to learn how to ride it (and you should also have a repair kit handy).

"It's the same with ICT. Tech can, and does, radically improve teaching and learning, but only with the right investments, especially professional development, and proper management."

Many UK schools already developing pedagogy – like Broadclyst

Broadclyst cook-upHeadteacher Jonathan Bishop introduces the cook-up Of course there are plenty of schools that can show how to change pedagogies to exploit the support, extension and acceleration that technology can provide, but they don’t feature in this PISA testing (no UK schools do).

Anyone wanting to discover just how unintentionall misleading the bald outcomes of this OECD report are, in the abscence of a meaningful context, could do no better than to visit a school that has tamed the technology and moved on with the learning. There are quite a few of them and they are more than happy to share and collaborate because that is part of their learning journey too.

This week Broadclyst Community Primary School (@BCPSchool) in rural Devon opened its doors to school leaders and other visitors for its "Decoding the Future" conference (see “Broadclyst champions innovation at own global event”). All the keynotes and school events and tours were open to be viewed on Skype and the participants were tweeting. 

Keynote speakers were competing with the classroom performances as the visitors enjoyed lessons where teachers and pupils were working together with colleagues in other schools via Skype - questioning each other and sharing information and insights. In the school's television studio two students interviewed Microsoft's education boss Anthony Salcito who had flown over from Seattle for the event. He held no fear for them as, on a previous occasion, pupils had hauled the then education secretary Michael Gove MP over the coals, particularly over the funding for the new school hall.

Plenty of technology and that can be misleading

Broadlyst classroomPlenty of technology at Broadclys but pupils use what's appropriateThe new hall and dining facilities (used for a "cook-up") were part of the "Decoding" celebration, as was the creation of the jointly created Cornerstones Teaching School and launch of the second round of the school's Education Global Competition (see "Mumbai school wins UK pirmary's global pitch" and "Broadclyst scoops $25,000 dollars at Microsoft's 'The Pitch"). There's plenty of technology at Broadclyst and that can be misleading for those diverted by glitzy things, but the real story is the learning, the pedagogy.

You don't need to talk to headteacher Jonathan Bishop to find out about that (although like many heads with strategic vision, he could take his place on the panel for any education debate). Any member of staff can help - because it's now in the school's DNA.

It doesn't take much observation on a school tour to see that the children are all engaged and on task and using appropriate technology, which more often than not is good old pen and paper. But the really great things they do simply couldn't happen without the technology, particularly the sharing, collaboration and comunication. And that was not lost on the visitors.

Most important of all in these days of disruption, when there are many types of schools and managements, was the fact that this event was supported widely. It was attended by regional school leaders, Devon's head of education and learning Sue Clarke and the regional schools commissioner Sir David Carter (who provided the final keynote).

Learning was the focus and technology was the enabling context (the National College speaker keynoted via his own iPad on Skype because the Department for Education's own technology wasn't up to it - expected but telling none the less). And even Microsof't Anthony Salcito had little to say about technology relative to the learning - he has also featured learning and teaching at Broadclyst on his Daily Edventures blog.

An inspector (HMI) calls - and joins the governors

Ken DysonGovernor Ken Dyson (ex-HMI)Former Ofsted schools inspector Ken Dyson is well-known nationally for his understanding in this area. He now lives in Devon and is a governor at Broadclyst. With evident pleasure he referred to the many occasions he supported English schools with their vision for what great learning with technology could look like.

'By an amazing coincidence I can now come into Broadclyst, on my own doorstep, and see it all in action,' he commented. And it's all part of a balanced, wide learning experience.

About the "Decoding" event, he said, "This was an excellent day. The inputs were stimulating and thought-provoking and featured leading figures from the world of education. The ambience of the school’s impressive new hall was spot-on, and the use of technology to elicit comments and questions from participants was highly appropriate."

If nothing else, the OECD report has stirred fresh debate on ICT for learning. But there is much noise with little harmony, and the argument is circular and usually led by people who simply don't understand and won't make the effort. It has to move on, and the national leaders who have trouble grasping the challenge should simply visit a Broadclyst, a Cadoxton, a Shirelands, an Essa, a Saltash.net. an IPACA. It's a long list.

There is also an alarming background of consistent media reports that appear to equate technology with problems in education, take for example the bizarre case of a 'behaviour czar' investigating whether mobile phones and tablets should be banned from schools. And there seems to be little recognition or understanding of the pioneering work of top educators in this field, like Michael Fullan and work like "New Pedagogies for Deep Learning".

Education without ICT is not an option

How to proceed with the OECD findings is unclear. But what is clear is that education without ICT is not an option. Mark Chambers added: "The direct connection between the use of technology and improved learning outcomes has always been contentious. However, we have strong evidence of the direct connection between ICT and general school improvement, given good leadership. We surveyed the performance of our schools with the Naace ICT Mark (those who have effectively integrated ICT into the work of the school) and their performance in Ofsted inspections. Our schools did significantly better, getting judgements of good and outstanding significantly (in the statistical sense) more often than schools without it.

"We agree with Andreas Schleicher’s conclusion that ‘Technology is the only way to dramatically expand access to knowledge.’ And we want to help his call to change pedagogies – we already know that works. We in Naace deplore policies which have fragmented the school system and are doing all we can to put in place networks of good practice so that teachers can learn from each other quickly and efficiently."

'If it's not happening in school, whose fault is it?'

Jack KennyWriter Jack KennyWriter and former teacher Jack Kenny has been a commentator on learning with ICT since the first computers went in to UK schools. He summed up the situation: "The computer IS a learning machine, a creative machine. You can write with it, edit your work with it, think with it, test propositions with it, record with it, write music with it, make videos with it, paint and draw with it, research with it, communicate across the world with it, archive with it, search with it, read with it, calculate with it, experiment with it, predict with it, solve problems with it, make music with it. If most of that is not happening in schools, whose fault is it?"

Good leaders take responsibility, and it's time for the national leadership to work with its own school leaders and relevant organisations to meet the challenge set out by Andreas Schleicher in the OECD's Students, Computers and Learning: Making the Connection foreword. Perfomance and leadership on learning with technology has been sadly lacking since way back when the Coalition government came to power.

There is no excuse. The government has its own Educational Technology Action Group (Etag) which was supported by Michael Gove MP and his colleagues. Its recommendation should now be taken up and developed. If they still don't understand they can bring in successful school leaders, or even turn to the person who steered the actual OECD report, Lorna Bertrand who chairs the PISA governing board. They don't have far to go. She works in the Department for Education's international division.

Jonathan BishopJonathan Bishop: 'blame misuse rather than the technology itself?'Meanwhile, here is the view from a school leader who has taken responsibility, Jonathan Bishop, headteacher at Broadclyst Community Primary School: "ICT on its own is not going to raise the standards of education or the outcomes for children. What will raise those standards and outcomes is high-quality teaching; ICT used appropriately and effectively in the hands of capable professionals can deliver greater efficiencies, more personalised learning, enriched opportunities and greater outcomes for children.

"Like any tool, used badly in the wrong hands ICT could perhaps be more destructive than helpful. Let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater with a report that is using measures of pupil outcomes without quantifying how the technological tools were used.

"A curriculum preparing students for the challenges of the 21st century needs to be personalised to the individual needs of children, broad in its scope and ensuring a balance between acquired knowledge and the development of skills. Standardised testing and summative assessment often focus on only one aspect – the knowledge retained rather than the skills learnt. Are we using the outcome of a limited assessment system to judge a tool that is used to empower and support a much broader and balanced curriculum?

"In other words, is it the misuse of ICT, rather than the technology itself, that we should be blaming?"

Students, Computers and Learning: Making the Connection 
A full report on Broadclyst's 'Decoding the Future' event will appear shortly