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

(Please leave a comment if you know of other responses that you think should be included here).

Further reading

About The Angry Technician

The Angry Technician is an experienced IT professional in the UK education sector. Normally found in various states of annoyance on his blog. All views are those of his imaginary pet dog, Howard.

20 responses to “Schools don’t need ICT? Pull the other one.”

  1. Nick (@largerama) says :

    Awesome challenge to the original ATL post. I reckon it was intended to spark debate and you have responded well here

  2. Gwyn ap Harri says :

    I think Ian Yorston’s post was bang on.

    Of course it generalised. Of course it wasn’t evidence based. Of course there are some schools (mine included http://www.campsmount.com) doing *some* great things.

    And that was what he was advocating. When he said schools don’t need ICT, he concluded that we need to embrace the ICT that surrounds us. He challenges the viewpoint that most (yes most – evidence based on me travelling round hundreds of schools over the past few years) schools think they can control ICT by locking it down.

    He thinks the approach most schools take with ICT is the wrong approach, not that schools should shut out ICT, but use the ICT that surrounds us in a better, more practical, even pragmatic way.

    That’s what I got from it, anyway.

    I’d go on but I need to spend more time with my family…

    Gwyn ap Harri

    • AngryTechnician says :

      I find it hard to take a revolutionary opinion seriously without at least some evidence to back it up, especially when there is a lot of evidence contradicting it. But if that was the point of the article, it spent far too long on inaccurate assumptions and not enough time advocating an alternative. I’m not against changing the way we do things, but there’s plenty that current approaches do get right, and saying it’s been a waste of time and money is utterly wrong in my opinion.

      The lockdown argument is absolutely valid, but I don’t think his solution is the right one. You don’t need to abandon the traditional model of equipment provision to solve it. You just need to remove the lockdown.

  3. José Picardo says :

    I very much read the original magazine article on the assumption that it was an article (not blog post) intended provoke debate and to ask a few searching questions about the state of ICT in schools. I think that was done very successfully, as proven by your response.

    You make some very good points as well.

    As to passing judgement on the ignorance and competence of other professionals in the field, I wouldn’t even dream of throwing the first stone, especially on the back of just a 1000 word magazine article.

    • AngryTechnician says :

      To be honest, if it had just been a blog post, the article probably wouldn’t have got my back up, but the fact it was published in a magazine that a lot of influential educators will read, with no immediate way to challenge the points it made, makes it dangerously misleading.

      If it was intended to provoke debate that needed to be made clearer. If not, then I would say that ignoring huge bodies of evidence is a very good way of making yourself look ignorant – fact. This blog is called the Angry Technician. I have no problem with stating facts, or throwing stones, because ‘angry’ is what I do here.

  4. Ian Yorston says :

    I’m pretty sure the article was intended to provoke debate.

  5. Ian Yorston says :

    The original brief for the article was to offer up one side of the debate – which would be balanced by a suitable counter-piece in the same issue. Unfortunately they weren’t able to commission anything suitable within the time-frame – and they wanted to publish my piece in the Oct 2010 magazine because I’m speaking at the ATL Independent Schools Conference in Nov 2010.

    Perhaps you should offer to write the missing counter-piece ?

    PS. I may very well be the worst Head of Digital Strategy you’ve ever heard of.

    • AngryTechnician says :

      That actually explains quite a lot. A real pity that the editors were not able to tap into the many authors who I know would have loved to contribute. For my offline discussions with others, I have a feeling that offers to write a counterpoint may well be on their way.

      I look forward to your talk at the Independent Schools conference next month. I had already planned to attend, but will firm up my plans now.

  6. Nick Dennis says :

    Interesting points from both articles and I agree with the idea that we need to use the resources that students bring with them. Guy Claxton and Bill Lucas in ‘New Kinds of Smart’ talk about overcoming ‘functional fixedness’ as a key aim for teachers who want to amplify the resourcefulness of students to adopt tools which amplify their intelligence. They don’t need to have the latest tech – they can use the calendar on their phone to help organise themselves or use the wifi connection of their ipod touch to connect to the network and gain resources. If they do not have such devices, schools can provide them such as Essa Academy in Bolton or the Bishop Stortford High School – two very different schools serving very different communities.

  7. Mark Roseman says :

    Knowing Ian a bit (as a supplier for some of the tech he’s rolled out at Radley) I quite enjoyed the original article. After all these years, getting the appropriate technology into schools and used appropriately shouldn’t still require the creative experts it does (Ian amongst them). Unfortunately I fear that the “average” school may be far closer to what is described in the article, which must be incredibly frustrating to the minority who really have a clue…

  8. Gwyn ap Harri says :

    Dear Angry Technician,

    seeing as though you have no email (or I can’t find it anywhere), just thought I’d say I think your blog is fantastic! Really funny. I think I’ve met you in about 50 different schools…

    If you met me, you’d probably hate me (yes, I own an iPad..), but I think you’re alright!

    Carry on,

    Gwyn

  9. John Al Subi says :

    Before I go any further, just have a look at http://www.unreasonableman.net/speaking.html and you will see no substance and a lot of self-gratification and self-importance.

    You will find this man is an idiot and foolish. He is neither here nor there. As you know getting involved in a debate with a foolish man is useless.

    • AngryTechnician says :

      I’m not sure it’s wise to judge someone by a list of their speaking engagements, so after hearing the explanation (above) for the odd tone of his article, I for one will be reserving judgement until after I see Mr Yorston speak in person next month.

  10. Tom Newton says :

    Also includes an allusion to my favourite “aaah, the clever pupils are all smarter than the network techs” line.

    I’ve met a great many that think they are, and a very few that even approach.

    • Gerard Sweeney says :

      Tom – yes, I’ve had that one fed to me while the pupil in question looked unsuitably smug.

      Amusingly, said pupil came whimpering to me shortly afterwards with his only copy of his final paper saved on a corrupt USB stick. I quietly savoured that moment. Though the tears welling up in his eyes stopped me from crowing too much.

    • Andy Guy says :

      Re the “kids are smarter than the kids” idea, he did say “I bet your school has one smart kid.”

      At our school we’ve seen passwords hacked, filters bypassed and much more. I’ve also worked with a head of ICT who asked me if I could identify a cable that one of the kids had removed. It was the network cable.

      In my albeit limited experience I have met many kids smarter than the techs. They are the exception, not the rule, but they are there and they are willing to pass on what they know to others.

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