Schools don’t need ICT? Pull the other one.
This weekend I was directed towards an article entitled “Why schools don’t need ICT“, by Ian Yorston, the Head of Digital Strategy at Radley College. The earnest Twitterer who led me to the article enthusiastically commented “so true!” I was intrigued.
My intrigue didn’t last long. As I read the article, it seemed so packed with fallacies that at any moment I expected the author to leap out from behind a curtain, fell every one of his prior arguments with a single, bold, stroke and declare “Hah! Do you see? That’s what the naysayers would have you believe, and it’s all rubbish!”
Sadly, that moment never came. I’m left with only two possibilities: either the entire article is a clever devil’s advocate piece, or Yorston may be the worst Head of Digital Strategy I’ve ever heard of.
If you haven’t read the article yet, please go and read it now. Then come back when you’re as angry as I was when I wrote what follows.
Update: Ian Yorston responded in the comments section, explaining the sorely-missing context for his article; a problem not of his own doing. Things certainly made a lot more sense after hearing from him.
The true state of ICT?
Yorston starts by talking about millions of pounds of investment that have yielded nothing but “a few hundred PCs running Windows XP and a handful of smart gadgets”. Well, maybe his school still runs an operating system from nearly 10 years ago, but ours are Windows 7 throughout, and as a prep school we don’t have nearly as much money as a prestigious and in-demand senior school such as Radley College. Frankly, the state of Radley’s website should tell you all you need to know about how close to the cutting edge the school is. Most state schools would be ashamed of such a dated web presence. Even the site my school had before I overhauled it in January was better. One wonders if the school has a marketing manager (most independents do, mine included), and how happy they are with their site when compared with other nearby schools such as Abingdon School.
Ignoring the evidence
But let’s put my own superiority complex aside for the time being. The article goes on to argue that every business on the planet has invested in ICT to save money or improve productivity, and argues that schools have seen neither of these, therefore the investment was a failure. “No one has identified improvements across the academic landscape that they are confident to ascribe to ICT,” he writes. Even an amateur would find that hard to believe, but for someone working in the field it smacks of ignorance. For anyone left wondering, try reading up on some actual work done in this area – a good starting point would be “The impact of ICT in schools“, a summary of extensive research on the subject from the University of Strathclyde’s Quality in Education Centre. Their conclusion was unequivocal:
“The overwhelming message is that most pupils and teachers have found the introduction of ICT into the classroom a positive development, motivating pupils and teachers alike and changing radically the learning experiences of both.”
A bold statement given that apparently no-one can be confident about it, and with a bibliography that is 8 pages long, it’s not exactly stabbing in the dark at an opinion in the same way Yorston appears to be.
Tarring us all with the same brush
Next, Yorston goes on to criticise the common practice of polices that “cripple the machines” by extensively filtering Internet access in schools.
“We block Facebook and Twitter and YouTube. We denigrate Wikipedia and HowStuffWorks. We ban mobile phones and digicams… No wonder [the students] think we’re all closet Luddites.”
It’s a fair criticism, but again he tars us all with the same brush that (I assume) his own school is using. While sites like YouTube are indeed blocked at my current school, that’s because there’s a hell of lot on there that is utterly unsuitable for a 6 year old. It’s a position few of our parents would disagree with. But at my last school, where we taught from ages 11 to 18, students enjoyed unfettered access to every site he mentions. With proper monitoring, we suffered no serious problems as a result other than bandwidth contention if a particularly viral video was doing the rounds. Mobile phones were indeed banished, but largely to prevent the disruption of ringtones in every lesson and as a measure against cyberbullying of both students and staff – something that the ATL union, who ran Yorston’s article, talked about last year.
My point is that restrictions on the use of technology are neither the simple black & white issue that his brief rail against them suggests, nor are they the only option. Some schools do perfectly well without such restrictions, and that Yorston doesn’t even seem aware of this this says more about his own school policies than that of schools in general.
The ‘digital native’
Yorston then moves on to what boils down to a discussion of the concept of the ‘digital native'; the new breed of child who has grown up around technology and knows how it all works already.
“Our students can be found drinking from an oasis of smartphones, smart apps and smart interfaces. They have answers to questions we haven’t even dared to ask.”
This sort of thinking has been on the rise for a few years now, long enough for serious research to be done on it: research that Yorston has either never read, or is choosing to ignore. Several well-regarded studies of students entering higher education in recent years argue that the concept is, once again, not as black & white as proponents suggest. The personal experience of Mrs AT, who is a university librarian, tells me that today’s undergraduates may know how to quickly find anything that’s on Google, but show them an academic journal database with infinitely superior resources, and they haven’t the first bloody clue how to find anything. At the other end of the scale, I recently heard from a primary school teacher who experimented with letting his class lose on a suite of “Web 2.0″ technologies and found that while they knew how to work things like instant messaging, they had no idea how it could be used as a discussion tool – they needed a teacher to lead them. Saying that we don’t need to teach IT because students can already use computers is like saying we don’t need to teach PE because students already know how to run around.
Personal devices as a cost-saver
Yorston finishes with his most cogent arguments, which touch briefly on the idea that rapid adoption of the latest mobile phone technology is something schools would do well to harness. While this is an idea with considerable merit, he doesn’t spend enough time on it to discuss it in any proper depth, and the stunning ignorance of his previous arguments utterly undermines the valid points he makes on the subject.
The idea is that we can meet the pupils on their own ground, and use the devices they already have for teaching and learning. It’s an increasingly common idea with considerable merit, and could well save schools money in the future. Unfortunately, I take exception with his assertions that “Teenagers upgrade their mobile phone every 12 months” and that “Even the socially disadvantaged are one step ahead of their school’s ICT.” This is a statement from someone who has clearly spent so long surrounded by the privilege of private schooling that he has no concept of the extent of social deprivation in some areas. In that context, I find the suggestion that every teenager has the latest phone both naive and offensive.
While we are steadily moving in the direction of online teaching and cloud computing, the idea that any day now we could leave our computers behind and teach everything via the students’ web-enabled phones is not only egregiously optimistic, but also assumes that everyone has a device of equal capability. One very good reason for providing equipment to our students, whether it’s in ICT, the music room, the sports field, or the workshop, is so that everyone has access to the equipment, and no-one is disadvantaged. Even if every student has a mobile phone with Internet access, are they all equal? How do we deal with those with lesser devices? It’s one of the same reasons we insist on a school uniform; everyone is equal, with no-one showing off their fashion labels while others sit around in whatever their parents could afford from Primark. We want this situation no less than we want one pupil flashing their iPhone 4 with unlimited data contract while others make do with an old Nokia on pre-pay.
Not worthy of study?
The most stunning part of Yorston’s article, however, is what isn’t in it. It began with the assertion that our investment in ICT has failed because it hasn’t produced cost savings or improvements in teaching. He complains that “Valuable classroom space has been re-equipped to provide us with ICT suites” and that:
“Valuable contact time has been offered up to teach ICT while staff training opportunities have been squandered on yet another integration of Microsoft Office or the introduction of an even newer, smarter, brighter VLE — whatever one of those might be. But no money has been saved whatsoever.”
Hang on just a second: what about ICT being deserving of teaching as a subject in its own right? Does everything the school invests in have to somehow save us money? Because if it is, how exactly are the sports facilities saving us money? Or perhaps we should look at the productivity angle instead. How exactly is the art department improving productivity in Mathematics lessons?
My point here is not to belittle sports, or art, or any other subject – they all have value, or we wouldn’t teach them. Unfortunately, Yorston seems to give the impression he doesn’t see the value in teaching ICT. After all, it’s taking up “valuable contact time” that could be used elsewhere. I think the Computing at School initiative would take exception to that, as would fellow IT blogger Ben Nunney. So would Ofsted. And so would the Independent Schools Inspectorate, whose report of their 2008 inspection of Radley College remarked that:
“Boys benefit very much from the ICT facilities. These support and enhance the educational experience through speedy communication, plentiful research opportunities and the development of ICT skills.”
Clearly educators see the value, but let’s not forget about the employers who will ultimately want to save money and improve productivity using IT. How happy will they be when all our students emerge from education with no idea how computers actually work, and suddenly there’s no-one who can design and build the next generation of computer systems used throughout the entire global economy?
As I remarked at the beginning of this post, I can’t help but wonder whether the entire article is a cleverly one-sided piece to provoke debate, whether perhaps I’ve got the wrong end of the stick from it, or if it’s simply the poorly-researched work of someone ignorant about his own field. If it’s the first, I hope he won’t take the above too personally. If it’s the second, then it’s a dangerously misleading article for ATL to have published. And if it’s the last? Well, perhaps the firmest warning I can give is to applicants for the post of Information Technology Teacher at Radley College, recently advertised in the TES. As Head of Digital Strategy, I assume that Ian Yorston would be your boss – and he thinks you’re completely unnecessary.
Other responses to the original article
- Run What Ya Brung. Fraser Speirs
- Hand Hold Or Hand Held? Neil Winton
- Using the kids’ kit is not the solution Gareth Davies
(Please leave a comment if you know of other responses that you think should be included here).
- Condie, R. and Munro, B. (2007) The impact of ICT in schools – a landscape review. Becta Research.
- Selwyn, N. (2009) The digital native – myth and reality. Aslib Proceedings: New Information Perspectives Vol. 61 No. 4, pp. 364-379.
- Williams, P. and Rowlands, I. (2007) Information Behaviour of the Researcher of the Future. British Library / JISC.
- Margaryan, A. and Littlejohn, A. (2008) Are digital natives a myth or reality?: Students’ use of technologies for learning. Caledonian Academy, Glasgow Caledonian University.
- Computing At School.
- A Lesson Worth Learning… Ben Nunney.
- Ofsted (2009) The importance of ICT: Information and communication technology in primary and secondary schools, 2005/2008.