Life, Truth and the Mysteries of the E-gasm

Are we moving into the wonderful ICT-rich future for schools that the politicians would have us believe in? Marshal Anderson looks beneath the hype and finds the real picture somewhat less rosy.

InteracTive June/July 2001

There are some things in life that just seem to confuse us - areas where there seem to be two parallel realities and we're not quite sure which one to buy into. The most difficult parallels are where our own experience seems at odds with received wisdom; the Government spends more on education but your school is still struggling; Ofsted is supposed to improve things but it just gets you depressed; ICT will transform the way we teach, but yours is the only computer in school that ever actually gets switched on. Of all the promises made to us over the last 20 years, the way it was claimed that ICT would change the fundamental nature of the teaching/learning transaction seems to have been one of the most dishonest.

Can we be straight for a moment and admit between ourselves that it simply isn't working? Be honest; even if you, personally, are managing to deliver a fair chunk of the QCA stuff on ICT (and the value of that is open to question), how many other classes in your school are getting that level of exposure to the technology? I spend part of my time teaching supply, and I visit a lot of schools. I also design a lot of educational software, and the reality gap between what I imagine during that creative process and what I find when I actually spend time in school is as wide as, well, an extremely wide thing.

Okay, I'm talking primary schools here, but let's start with what I actually see. The strongest impression I get is of a lot of hardware simply not in use - the main function of computers in many schools seems simply to be to find employment for old curtains as dustsheets. Sometimes the machines in classrooms are switched on but their main function seems to be to run distracting screensavers that advertise the snack-food company that supplied some free software (read Naomi Klein's No Logo for an interesting view on that).

Sometimes there are labs - labs are cool. The thing about having a lab is that you get a B-list politician to come along and open it, so you can get your school in the local paper and save the burglars the trouble of having to find out where the kit is. I saw a great picture of a lab in a recent teachers' union magazine, with lots of kids staring at screens. But the screens only had the Windows desktop on them or weren't even switched on. It's as if people no longer even bother to pretend anything is actually working. So let's try to identify what it is that's getting in the way of us actually making use of all this stuff.


The big problem with hardware is that its very existence seems to imply that a school has 'got ICT'. It you have an Important Visitor, then all you need to do is dash round, switch everything on, maybe sit some kids down in front of a wordprocessor, and there you have it - it can look very impressive. The problem is that the hardware becomes an end in itself. A local head told me proudly of the funding he'd got to set up video conferencing in his primary school. The system was also to be available to 'the community'. Unfortunately, no-one seemed to have any idea who the kids would actually be video conferencing with and how this might contribute to their education. It's not that there's no potential in such a system - far from it, of course - it's just that it hadn't been considered. Same thing with networks: more and more primaries are getting networked up but, apart from being able to access the Net very slowly, it's not clear why this is of use.


We really do seem to have lost our way with software, though it's not really anyone's fault (much). What is it we want our computers to do? That actually has to do with what we think our education system is for. Back in the early eighties we still had some sort of notion of education as a wide(ish)-ranging thing that was really quite flexible, with the child at the centre of it. In primary schools we had stuff like the integrated day, lots of group working and so on. Back then, the scale of software was such that teachers themselves could write it and explore the use of the machine as a creative learning tool. The likes of Mike Matson and Ian Whittington brought forth packages like Flowers of Crystal and Mary Rose. We all had high hopes.

But things changed. The move toward teacher-centred whole-class teaching with a behaviourist emphasis meant that the function of software moved from the experiential/creative/ exploratory to pretty much drill-and-practice. On top of that, production costs soared as machines became more sophisticated, making publishers less willing to take a chance on something that's 'good but might not sell'. And, on top of that, more formal classroom arrangements make it very difficult indeed to integrate ICT into the classroom. Thus, modern software needs to have high production values, fit in directly with the National Curriculum and SATs and be capable of being useful to a child with very short bursts of use. This means that the bulk of it will be fairly superficial and uninspiring.

It gets worse ...

On top of the organisational/pedagogical issues, we have the relationship between the teacher and the machine. The BESA 2000 ICT survey found that slightly less than 50% of all teachers feel confident about using computers in the classroom, and the FOC training seems to be doing little to counter that. One of the biggest issues here is quite mundane--the damn things just aren't reliable. It's scary enough when your lesson rests on a certain package needing to work reliably for an hour, but if you add the need for the local area network (LAN) and the Internet all co-operating, you're sticking your neck out. A less than confident teacher only needs one serious lock-out or the Blue Screen of Death and they'll think twice about ever switching it on again.

The e-gasm generation

The other side of the problem is the myth and spin that surrounds the whole thing. It seems to be in far too many people's interest to 'talk up' the power of ICT - there's some bizarre idea being put about by movers and shakers that anything remotely digital must necessarily be a prospect devoutly to be wished. These are the people who think we should be browsing the Internet on our mobile phones. At the head of the queue are companies that stand to make a fair amount out of schools - BESA reckoned £21m was spent by schools on ICT last year.

And then there's the Government, building this e-future for us all but not seeming to want to pause and ask whether it actually works. Their current consultation document, Curriculum Online, starts out: 'The use of digital technology for improving the delivery of education has enormous potential to raise standards and increase employability.' Does that sound like a consultation document or a 'we've-already-decided' document? To be fair, it also says: 'We know that ICT cannot be an ad hoc addition to what schools do. It must be a carefully thought through contribution adding real value to more traditional teaching methods and reinforcing our investment in the basics of education.'

But somehow such kinds of lapses into sanity tend to get lost in the fray. If you want to see something really scary, try the report of the web based Education Commission to the President and the Congress of the United States: Case Study One; Soldiers With Laptops.

What next?

I've worked myself into a real state of depression writing this - how can I possibly go back to my current software project after all that? Maybe it's age; I just don't feel like fighting any more. But what I have learned is this: that there are schools out there actually making creative use of this technology - little pockets of inspiration where children use ICT to produce their own art and music, where a wordprocessor is a composing tool, not just an opportunity for copy-typing, where flowers bloom on a Logo screen and where the Internet is a communications tool, not just the World's Biggest CD-ROM. If you're the inspiration inside one of those pockets, please don't give up - your time may yet come.