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“If there’s nothing there, how can anything go wrong?” – 2 of 3

March 12, 2012

This is the second of three posts as part of the background to a seminar I’m delivering at Dundee University on 14th March.

“Probably the closest things to perfection are the huge absolutely empty holes that astronomers have recently discovered in space. If there’s nothing there, how can anything go wrong?” – Richard Brautigan

Schools used to be places of wonder and excitement. They were the places we went to encounter things magical we did not have at home. The first time I saw colour TV, it was at school. The first time I recorded my own music, it was at school. And the first time I saw a computer, it was at school.

Schools had a valuable role in making the exotic and expensive ‘normal’ and in so doing, they encouraged us to dream and imagine and question.

My first hands-on encounter with a computer actually came at home. My mum was one of the teachers trained to use the BBC micro, and after a couple of twilight training sessions, she brought the ‘beast’ home. In trying to help my mum, I very quickly learned how to get the screen to repeat “Hello World”… but sadly, I never really got beyond that.

When I became a teacher, one of the first classes I had to teach was a SCOTVEC in Desk Top Publishing. We were using Archimedes computers and Impression Style. It was an awesome predecessor of Apple’s Pages, but about 20 years earlier!

I loved those machines, not least because during the first lesson I got the DTP class to bump up all the memory caches so that the screen started having a visual fit. Having completely messed up the machine, I showed the class how to do a factory reset, and pointed out that they had just deliberately done the worst they could to the machines, had learned how to fix it, and so could we now get on and concentrate on the important stuff, namely writing good copy and finding suitable images… in other words, we got the tech out of the way quickly so we could get on with the learning.

Before long, we were adding video production. First with stills grabbed from VHS tapes, and then with an incredibly expensive Kodak digital camera that had (from memory) a resolution of 64K. It didn’t matter that the pictures we massively pixelated, and were capable of completely hogging the 2MB RAM on the computers, we were ‘cutting edge’ and exposing the learners to tools and techniques that they could only dream of at home.

This is a story repeated across the land. How many schools cut their teeth on Apple Classics, or HPs running Windows 95? How often were we the first to introduce learners to just what a computer was, and what it could do? Not any more.

In recent years, the excitement and experimentation of those early days has been replaced by Microsoft Office. All too often, that is what is meant by ICT. No wonder we are having a national crisis over poor ICT skills. In the rush to assess and quantify and validate, we have stripped out the things that matter if we wish to truly encourage the ICT whizz kids of the future. Schools ICT provision is now dictated by ‘value for money’ – or put another way: as cheap as possible, tug your forelock, be grateful we’ve even given you a PC, and stop asking for any software that we don’t think is worthwhile… especially if it costs money, and doubly especially if it is free/open source. When it comes to ICT provision in schools, I strongly doubt there are any decisions being made on pedagogical grounds.

The truth is that the days of schools as hotbeds of experimentation with computers have gone. In my own experience, PCs are allocated on a subject by subject basis which means that someone somewhere on some grounds has decided that Business need loads of computers while English doesn’t, Maths don’t need as many computers as Personal and Social Education… Yet this perpetuates one fundamentally flawed view of ICT that is all too prevalent in schools, namely, that ICT has limited and specific uses that can be predicted in advance and with scant regard to the potential learning opportunities afforded by a more open and pervasive distribution of resources.

If you want to see really innovative uses of ICT in the classroom, ask the learners to bring in their own devices and show you what they can do. In my own experience, doing this lead to me uncovering someone who makes films for YouTube, someone who is making up to a £1000 a month on the iTunes App Store, someone who has delivered online learning to kids in America, some great songwriters, and quite a few writers. Everyone of these ‘learners’ is aged between 11 and 17, and every one of them is reliant on ICT tools to do what they love… and every single one of them, without exception, had achieved and attained their goals without any input from formal education whatsoever. Instead, they had done what Sugata Mitra so acutely demonstrated with his hole-in-the-wall computer, they have used the online world to teach themselves. They have found their own elearning, and in some cases, their own pedagogies, and we didn’t have to do a thing…

I suppose what it all boils down to in the secondary sector is not whether there is a distinct pedagogy of elearning, but whether, in realistic terms, we are actually using elearning at all. We should be. And we should be doing this not as an add on, but as an intrinsic and fundamental part of our pedagogical approach. Yes, there are pockets of elearning going on, and Glow – despite its many shortcomings – has done a lot to raise awareness of the possibilities, but there is next to no real drive to adopt elearning as a key part of teaching in a Scottish secondary.

My last post mentioned how we have (or are supposed to have) tech savvy teachers. We also have lots of classroom leaders who want to push the boundaries, wish to introduce new tools and new working practices. We have a new curriculum rolling out that almost begs us to include ICT in our practice and this does require new pedagogical approaches… as Kenny Pieper so eloquently said, “The time is now“.

The last post in this series will look at some of the management of change issues that I see as possible stumbling blocks in adopting elearning and implementing pedagogical change. Until then, please feel free to add questions in the comments.


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