More articles from Bill Lamin

IT In Schools - a Heretic’s View

After teaching computing, in various guises, for the last ten years, I have been astonished by the dramatic changes that have taken place in the last six months. The whole focus of I.T. in our school has been dramatically and totally redefined.

 

We have installed a new computer system. A large network of powerful machines. They happen to be Acorn badged but the argument would hold for a P.C. or Apple based system. The conclusions, given the right thought processes, should be rather similar with any modern system.

 

The whole way that children use and learn to use computers has been changed by the introduction of the latest generation of computers. Schools, advisors and educationalists can ignore the changes at their peril.

 

A few years ago there was a persuasive argument abroad - I used it myself - that went something like this;,"When your child leaves school, in the real world, they are quite likely to use a computer." - O.K. so far - "If they can use a computer confidently, then they will be better placed in the job market." Sounds all right. But try considering the kids in school today. They have no problems using computers. They don't understand the idea that there can be a confidence problem. To them the computer is as much a part of everyday life as is a bicycle, probably more so. The least able kids can use computers with confidence. They may not use them effectively or appropriately in our view, but the confidence factor that was important six or seven years ago has proved as ephemeral as punched tape and eight inch floppy discs.

 

There has been a quantum leap in the educational perspective of computers. Not a quantum leap in computer power or technology or anything so remote from schools, but a quantum leap in the educational perspective of computers.

 

We have passed through a brief era where "computer lessons" in one form or other had a significant impact. The short heyday of Computer Studies is over. Finished. Dead. A lot of influential bodies - examinations boards, steering groups, I.T. coordinators. advisors and sundry ostriches have a vested interest in keeping the subject alive, but the life support machine will have to be switched off if we are to progress.

 

The current generation of computers can take a new place in the curriculum. They can provide extra resources to improve the learning environment. And that is it.

 

"Computer lessons" have little meaning today. (I exaggerate slightly, but let me expand the idea). Computers should only become part of lessons when they have a role to play. They take a place in the classroom that is similar to that of a dictionary or a calculator. When it is appropriate to use a computer, then it's used. If it isn't appropriate, then it isn't used. Simple. I know that there is nothing revolutionary in that. Computer teachers have been saying it for years, but the establishment, the examination boards and the National Curriculum Council, have sought a much higher profile for the Information Technology. Now it can, and must, actually take its proper place.

 

The great enlightenment is the realisation that we have stopped teaching any significant transferable computing skills. The software has become so powerful, so straightforward, that the end result can generally be obtained without encountering "computing problems."

 

Let me give examples;

 

In our Business and Information Studies GCSE course, we expect pupils to use a word processor to lay out letters, reports, minutes, memos, posters and adverts. We get a mark scheme for the coursework that assigns "I.T. marks" for accuracy, underlining, bold print, centring etc., etc used "appropriately in the document." The reality is that pupils have no problem at all with the mechanics of using a spell checker and of formatting text. The word processor we use makes all of these facilities so accessible that they are mastered in minimal time. The problem is with the "using appropriately" bit. If they know how to lay out a text properly, then that is the end of it. These marks for "I.T." are misapplied.

 

For some years we have been putting a proportion of our pupils through a "computer measurement and control" course - controlling buggies, logging cooling curves, designing burglar alarms and the like. Of course, programming the computers in Basic is beyond the average 14 year old and so we wrote a procedure library that reduced the whole problem to that of determining the correct sequence of instructions, with an "if - then" type of decision for the really advanced stuff. The computer skill bit had been programmed out. We were merely using computers to test ideas and to demonstrate that the logical steps needed to solve the problem had been correctly determined.

 

When I got first got hold of my new A3000 and the "Poster" program I produced a wonderful computer laboratory timetable. I covered it with exotic computer related clip - art, used about six fancy fonts and bent the main headings around a computer screen. The Head of Art and Design was reduced to tears - of laughter. The computer skills were no problem - and of a very low level. However, I had had no experience of the skills of graphic design. In a single sheet, I had, apparently, broken just about every rule there was concerning page layout. Desk Top publishing, with today's facilities, has little in the way of computer skills but needs much in the way of graphical design.

 

I have used spreadsheets in my Maths lessons. The big successes have been when we, as a class, have encountered a real problem that could be solved by an iterative technique. ( or in my class's case, by trial and error) The maximising of the volume of a box produced from a fixed size piece of card is an example. Analytically, the problem requires the solution of a cubic expression, well beyond a year 10 middle set. However, once the idea that a spread sheet can be used to try different shapes of box, rapidly and easily, is grasped then away we go. Plot a scatter graph of the computer's attempts and WOW! the solution is evident. Computing - minimal, Maths - superb.

 

Is there a common theme with these examples? In every case what is traditionally and was "National Curriculumly" regarded as an I.T skill has very little actual I.T. in it!

 

The operating systems have disappeared from the screen, the program is now the front page. If pupils can switch a computer on, they can access the software and use the computer. Basic skills are quickly learned so that the programs can be put into the context of lessons.

 

"If they haven't used equipment with this operating system, does it matter much?" I strongly supect that the answer should be something along the lines of "No, it doesn't really matter, because in a couple of hours they will have acquired the necessary basic skills".

 

To suggest that we should be teaching pupils to use operating systems and applications software as "skills for life" is ludicrous. The rate of change in Information Technology is still staggeringly fast. Most of the software that was "standard" just five years ago seems pretty ancient today. (286 processors, BBC computers and no "windows" for most users!) . Can we guess what the next few years will bring? Employers and Colleges certainly shouldn't be worried about their customers arriving with specific experience of their systems. The basic skills on the new software can be picked up in a very short time. They, like schools, should be concentrating on the application of the I.T. facilities to their courses.

 

What steps should we be taking in the light of these changes? How can we ensure that we use Information Technology resources effectively and appropriately?

 

1. Choose the hardware and software configurations that are going to be most use to your pupils today.

 

2. Make sure that the software can be actually used in lessons.

 

3. Don't get anything solely because it fits in with the National Curriculum statements.

 

4. Teach the basic skills that give access to your system as soon as possible. (Using the mouse, selecting software, saving, loading, printing etc.- today's list) and leave the rest to the kids and the rest of the teaching staff.

 

5. Forget the outside world. Their computing requirements are different to schools. Any skills really needed, will be taught when the kids get there.

 

6. Don't get over concerned about specific I.T. skills. They aren't skills that will last for five years, certainly not for a lifetime.

 

The I.T Coordinator can soon take early retirement (or go back to teaching maths). Appoint an Information Technology manager responsible for providing the appropriate hardware resources for the school. He'll design the networks and keep them working, installing the software and keeping the terminals and network management system up to scratch. Nothing, or little, to do with the front line of teaching. I.T. Advisors are of no importance. Most I.T advice will come from the subject advisors who will see opportunities for enhancing learning by using these machines.

 

The National Curriculum has made us try to get pupils computing. There has been a great attempt to develop schemes to integrate computing into all sorts of subject areas and then to drag out the bits that can be tied to statements of attainment supplied by Higher Authority. It has been a visible struggle and success or failure has been dependent on a string of variables that are, universally, beyond the control of the teachers responsible.

 

The National Curriculum statements for I.T. appeared about five years ago - in the age of the PC186 and the BBC model B. The technology has since changed beyond recognition. The statements are still there, clinging on for dear(ing) life. Chuck them away.

 

Bill Lamin

 

Director of Information Technology

 

Pool School & Community College

 

January 1995

 

"Top School IT Trends"

The article was included in the above book published by John Catt Publications

Harry Lamin was born in August 1887 in the East Midlands of England. In 1917, aged 29, he joined up to fight in the First World War.

The intention of this blog is to publish the letters exactly 90 years after Harry wrote them. His first letter from the training camp was written on February 7th 1917. It will be published on the blog on February 7th 2007. Click HERE to read the blog.

WWI: Experiences of an English Soldier

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