We must embrace technology in education or bore another generation

At our seminar on the use of technology in education on Tuesday morning (13th Sept) I was reminded that despite this government’s seemingly condescending attitude towards what Michael Gove may well regard as a ‘fad’, there is still appetite among the teaching community, the computer industry and many policymakers (not least the fantastically passionate Lord Knight [Labour] and Lord Lucas [Conservative]) for the increased use of technology in schools. This is great to see because if we want young people to be engaged in learning in a world where information is so readily available we need to adapt our schools system to support and encourage young people to use technology to embrace and deconstruct this wealth of information – not keep them stuck on the textbooks and silent, repetitive working of old.

Let’s be clear many schools are utilising technology in exciting ways, perhaps none more so than Neil Hopkins, headteacher of Rosendale and Christ Church Schools who used his contribution to the seminar to demonstrate a film made by a 2-year old as part of the Early Years Foundation Stage. Neil’s point was vital to understanding how far we have come even since I was in school (I finished 6th form in 2005) – the kids and their abilities to utilise the latest technology are far too often well ahead of those ‘teaching’ them.

The idea that the kids know better than their teachers is somewhere between bitterly painful and horrific for teachers to hear. Yet let’s be clear, when I took GCSE ICT I was on course for an A* because frankly showing how to make a Powerpoint, use Word and build a spreadsheet in Excel really isn’t difficult, I’m not being arrogant, I’m actually something of a technical failure compared to many of my peers yet according to the curriculum I was advanced, top of the class…what a load of rubbish. I finished with a B because I was completely disengaged and my botched together Year 11 coursework in between chatting with friends throughout the lessons - both those in the class and those halfway across the school in another ICT class via a primitive chat room that the school’s lead technician somehow found nigh on impossible to block (and when he did we just used another website). I regret not working harder in those classes and securing that easy A* but I’m more ashamed of our education system which deems such mediocrity in 21st century understanding as ‘excellence’.

While Michael Gove lauds the importance of Latin and Boris Johnson hails ‘the classics’ I fear this Government’s National Curriculum review, with its already announced focus on facts and figures, will push us backwards when we need a sharp kick up the bum forwards or else the next generation will be unfairly and unnecessarily handicapped against their peers in other nations. So if the Government aren’t going to do anything about it what should Labour say (and if graced with the power of Government in 2015, what should they do) about it?

Firstly we need the Government to work with hardware and software developers to create a kitemark of excellence for products. A ‘School Ready’ logo to go on laptops and software packages that denotes that is has passed a minimum quality standard for use with a full range of school work – schools can then use this framework to take full advantage of the technology which each student should have available to them. Lord Knight recognised that as more and more people access cheaper computers, and the number who don’t have home access reduces, these pupils become harder to reach. There are no easy answers to this problem but computer vouchers for the poorest parents combined with the confidence a universal quality kitemark could offer those parents when redeeming the vouchers would probably go a long way to ensuring all children have access to a computer in their home within 5 years.

Secondly we should recognise that most young people have good basic computing skills by the age of 11 and those who don’t really should so that they don’t fall behind. Computer literacy is as important to employers as literacy and numeracy (and will only become more so) and as a result should be added to the core measures on which primary schools are judged when sending pupils off to secondary school. All those skills that I was ‘taught’ in Key Stage 3 (years 7 to 9) and at Key Stage 4 (GCSE level) should be taught in Key Stages 1 and 2. I know the Labour government improved ICT in primary schools with pupils even starting in the Reception year – this has to be the case and the SATs (or ideally a replacement of them – though that’s for another blog) should reflect pupils’ abilities to use spreadsheets, make presentations and type. ICT in secondary school can then be dissolved and the timetable time that would free up could be used to introduce Basic Computing (i.e. programming, understanding the mechanics of a computer etc.) and Multimedia (shooting/editing films, graphic design) as Technology subjects for all pupils.

Finally, by ensuring higher pupil computer literacy by age 11 secondary schools (but also primary schools as part of the development of that computer literacy) can utilise pupils’ abilities in a more practical setting to enhance their learning whilst making it more enjoyable and liberating too. I remember making a 2-minute documentary for my sociology homework in Year 12; it was praised by the teacher who used it to teach our successors on the course (it may even still be in use to this day!) It was more fun than writing a short essay, required teamworking skills (as nearly all film making does), I engaged in the subject and created something that informed my peers. This kind of creative use of technology is becoming easier and easier for schools to accommodate thanks to the fact that cameras and editing software are cheaper than ever, it will be easier still if pupils are given the chance to experiment with the technology as part of the curriculum.

Lord Lucas, wonderfully off-message for a Conservative peer, denounced the idea of a set of facts to be drilled into pupils and instead said, quite rightly, that teachers should guide pupils to use the internet intelligently to research and delve deeper than the curriculum into areas that interest them. My reading ability was greatly enhanced by the fact that my mother didn’t force me to read a set list of ‘books I should read’ but instead bought me adult-age books about Doctor Who and football, this principle can be applied across subjects, helping engage pupils who would otherwise be bored by education.

If this utopia of 21st century education is to be achieved the Government must also commit to developing and funding a teacher CPD (continuing professional development) programme which would allow teachers across all subject areas who aren’t used to modern technology (particular things like video editing) to gain the basic understanding they need to ensure they can confidently embrace the use of technology as a liberating teaching tool. Equally we a greater focus on IT skills in the primary Key Stages computer literacy must be added to the qualifying exam for teachers.

With all the Government’s talk of the creative industries being the future of growth, the need for more engineers to build green infrastructure and the need to develop a British Silicon Valley you wonder if Michael Gove was copied into the policy announcements. England’s education system must focus on using technology and improving multimedia skills if it is to develop the skilled workforce to meet the full potential of the these industries and match, if not out-do, our neighbours in China, Brazil, Japan etc.