Why teaching ICT cannot be abandoned

By Photos public domain.com [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
As Russel Tarr’s recent response to a high-profile attack on his methods of teaching the history of the Weimar Republic (1918-33) gathers deservedly increasing views across the Internet, other parts of Michael Gove’s “Mr. Men” speech align with my concerns about the move away from teaching of ICT in schools and its replacement with (the far more high-brow sounding) Computing Science.

“As long as there are people in education making excuses for failure, cursing future generations with a culture of low expectations, denying children access to the best that has been thought and written, because Nemo and the Mister Men are more relevant, the battle needs to be joined.” (Michael Gove, 2013)

Contrast with one of the recommendations from the Next Gen. report mentioned by Michael Gove:

“Recommendation 3: Use video games and visual effects at school to draw greater numbers of young
people into STEM and computer science.” (Next Gen., Ian Livingstone & Alex Hope, 2011)

The draw of the shiny and new! As scenarios go I would far rather create video games or animations related to Finding Nemo or the Mr. Men than Of Mice and Men and Henry V and I’m pretty sure my students would too, given the choice. Seriously though, creating video games and visual effects using industry-standard software applications requires advanced problem solving skills, application of mathematics and physics and understanding of how a computer system can turn instructions into actions on the screen. It also involves management skills, teamwork, design and creativity. My concern is that a large number of schools are using the headline “games design”, “app design” or “computer animation” to try and reverse declining numbers taking the subject, then use the same teaching methods as they did with package skills…

“What has been wrong with education and IT is that it has been very much focused on the clerical aspect of IT – Microsoft Word, Powerpoint – and that has gone into every remit of the curriculum. It is about giving students access and inspiration so when they go into the wider world of work they are part of the technological advances of the country.” (Depute Principal of St Matthew Academy, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-16186705)

“It was a boring set of documents that encouraged boring teaching of boring tasks in a field which should be one of the most exciting in education. The ICT curriculum we inherited was a tedious run-through the use of applications which were becoming obsolete even as the curriculum was being written.” (Michael Gove again, 2013)

But look at this: Lucasfilm want Interns! A quick glance at the essential and desired skills required for a role in Singapore – riding high in a recent index of cognitive skills and educational attainment – the  show a need for:

Education, Experience and Skills:

  • Interest in film production, digital games and media arts preferred
  • Workplace professionalism
  • Multitasking skills – Working on multiple projects with strict deadlines
  • Ability to work well in a multi-cultural team environment with diverse personalities
  • Strong verbal and written communication skills
  • Computer skills: Microsoft Word, Excel, Outlook. FileMaker Pro experience a plus.

So an interest in digital media would be desired but most important are: social skills, time management, presentation skills and ICT skills to aid communication (wouldn’t that be classed as clerical skills?). The only other nod to multimedia computing on the page is a request to “link to your online/downloadable reel or portfolio (if you have these)”. Yes this is just one example but highlights the need for continued teaching of ICT. Perhaps just in a different way?

As a programmer I’m glad the focus has been shifted back to using computer systems to create software or link to hardware devices such as the Raspberry Pi or Arduino but without ICT skills linked to the essential processes involved in the world of work and Higher Education, you risk creating skilled coders who are unable to apply for and retain the jobs waiting for them to fill.

“For children who have become digital natives and who speak fluent technology as an additional language, the ICT curriculum was clearly inadequate.” (more from Michael Gove, 2013)

Perhaps rigour in teaching ICT skills and ensuring that the skills they learn are relevant to the rest of the curriculum at the right time would make them more useful. I’m keen on not having ICT on the timetable as it identifies it as a unique entity – unrelated to other subjects the student encounters at school. Tracking progress at primary school and allowing individual students to follow challenging pathways which further develop their skills is tricky to plan and implement, but I think also extremely important.

Here’s why: Children are, in the main, not digital natives. They might wear the badge with honour but, without developing their understanding of what a “digital native” actually is, you may find they are wearing that badge upside down. Students may be confident enough to explore and experiment when faced with a new software application but find it very difficult to recall practical skills when the Computing department see them for around an hour each week (if you’re lucky!).

The solution mooted in Scotland a few years ago was to teach ICT in every subject and leave the programming and multimedia-specific elements to Computing Science teachers. Increased exposure to tasks which relied on students applying their ICT skills to solve problems, create reports or prepare presentations would reinforce practical skills and re-engage disaffected learners. Great idea, poorly planned and implemented due to a stunning lack of staff CPD, limited resources for using ICT in all subjects, corporate filtering and application deployment systems and push-back by subject teachers who felt they had enough to cover already without also including ICT in their remit. It is understandable: staff need to trust that the technology will work consistently enough to be able to teach their subject content. If it is unreliable and the root cause is not remedied, it will be treated as a strategy that does not provide benefit to the student – and abandoned.

The current pedagogy of how ICT lessons are delivered, assessed and reinforced must change to suit the needs of the individual learner.

Do not disrupt: thoughts on invisible technology

I’ve just come back from a two-week holiday in Slovenia. It was my first time there and I highly recommend a visit – we were based at Lake Bled but had the benefit of a hire car for four days midway through the fortnight which allowed us to tackle the Vršič Pass (and get lost on a one mile “easy” walk as advertised by our error-strewn Sunflower walking guide), take in the sights of Ljubljana’s Old Town (although I’m sad I didn’t have enough time to get to Metelkovo mestro as taunting snippets of its graffiti were in every guide book, calendar and even merchandise. Take a look at the video embedded in Piran Cafe’s Ljubljana Graffiti Tour if you are wondering what I’m on about) and have our plans to drive to Lipica and Trieste thwarted by thunderstorms. We struck lucky by staying at one of the most kid friendly hotels I’ve ever experienced, the Hotel Savica, and as a result every single member of the family returned home in great spirits (despite 7 different modes of transport between our hotel and house!).

Here’s a great on-board video of the Vršič Pass to give you an idea of how twisty-turny the route is. I loved it (and drove most of it in 1st  and 2nd gear).

Of course I took the old iPod Touch 2G with me. I still love its portability and even though it is showing its age now (stuck on/off button, can’t upgrade past 4.2.1 iOS) it was a godsend during the holiday for route planning, weather forecasts, translation, news and social media. My PLN were fantastic in suggesting things to see and do while in Slovenia (thanks Freda O’Byrne and @shirlpj) and I was able to keep up with some great education conversations and thoughts. I’d signed up to Doug Belshaw‘s Things I’ve Learned This Week newsletter just before the end of the Scottish school term (I used to love reading his short blog posts on this topic and thought he had simply stopped doing them) and some of the links and ideas he mentioned are now in a nice little “to investigate” list in my iOS Notes app. The iPod also allowed me to keep up to date with the Computing At School group posts which continues to inform my planning for the 2012-13 session and simultaneously marvel at the great work that has been done to reintroduce or refresh Computing Science concepts in the UK and Ireland. I lurk there a lot but intend to get more involved as I get further along the road with a few developments (my Raspberry Pi being one of them!).

Slovenia had a fantastic free wifi network: from hotels, bars, airports and museums let me connect quickly without registration and the bandwidth seemed very generous. The most striking moments of high tech connectivity for me were: being able to access fast broadband at a rustic restaurant in Trenta (a tiny village beyond the aforementioned Vršič Pass) and the FREE public wifi available at Ljubljana airport as we checked in for our return flight. Those responsible for digital infrastructure in the UK could do well to take inspiration from their Slovenian counterparts. It was hassle-free, reliable and meant I could get on with my holiday rather than battling with settings, email confirmations, logins, etc.

Although I used Twitter on a daily basis while on holiday, Facebook was a different matter. Their mobile app, almost universally accepted as being pants, has been long erased from the iPod Touch. I did update my status whilst on holiday to let family and friends know how the holiday was going, but made use of Selective Tweets to cross-post from Twitter to Facebook through use of a ‘#fb’ hashtag. This workflow is simple and reliable and saves me a whole heap of app crashes and mood swings.

Although the percentage of Slovenia’s population who have internet access is much lower than that of the UK, they seem to have the right idea about how it should, or rather should not, disrupt normal everyday life. Because access was simplified, I felt that I used my device more effectively to enhance my holiday experience. I didn’t have to spend an hour after breakfast surfing for information and alienating my family, instead looking for information, news or communications on the go when it was needed. I do realise this is what most people with 3G connections can do already, but they pay through the nose for it.

At my previous school I battled to make use of the wifi network to utilise a class set of iPod Touches. The connection authorisation process was so unwieldy that in the end I was forced to take some staff members out of school to the local library to train them. I understand the desire to lock down access to files and personal information on the school network but when the primary use would be to access the internet I feel it should be as open as possible. The traffic would still be going through the school’s filtering system and logs would still be held on the server so the activity of each device can still be monitored. From a learner’s point of view access is most important and, like the staff who were new to mobile devices and wifi at my previous school, difficulties in this area will reduce their confidence in the technology. However if they can focus on extracting or curating information without disruption…

On the journey home I thought a lot about my own workflows and how they can be refined as I begin my new role as PT of ICT for Learning at my current school. I’ll go into this in the detail it deserves in a future blog post.

The coffee shop as a classroom: mobile learning environments

Image shared under Creative Commons licence - Kate Williams

I like coffee. No – let me rephrase that – I LOVE coffee. It plays a big part in my teaching – at times providing a versatile prop for explaining the difference between an object and operation, at others simply providing the nervous energy to keep the learners learning. (I’ve been re-reading #MoveMeOn, curated by Doug Belshaw @dajbelshaw. thanks to @frankcrawford for that particular gem!)

I managed to clear my desk on Thursday earlier than planned so took the opportunity to walk around the three shopping malls near my new workplace. Not just to kill time (heaven forbid Mr McCormac!), I wanted to expand an ongoing series of lessons on data protection and loyalty schemes I had delivered to my S4 ICT class earlier in the term and me having an up-to-date knowledge of the businesses in the local area was a pre-requisite. It didn’t take long to complete what I needed to do (UK shopping malls or shopping centres are much smaller than in the US with perhaps 20-40 stores, some smaller) so I had a quick stop at the Apple store in Aberdeen to eavesdrop of a group of six pensioners who were being shown how to use their brand new iPads then started my lunch break at the nearby Starbucks with a crème brulee macchiatto and a quick refresh of my social media sites on their free wi-fi.

It was a lot busier than usual – I had, in the past, only used this particular Starbucks as a go-to when late afternoon trains were cancelled and I had an hour or so to kill before the next one – but I found a small table with plenty of scope for people-watching. The coffee-house furniture is a mixture of hard back chairs and small “regular” tables, sofa chairs and low tables, benches and long tables, stools and narrow bars. Students, parents, office workers and transients like myself sat and chatted, read quietly, enjoyed their purchases and from time-to-time accessed their devices if they had them and if they needed to. A few of my Advanced Higher Computing students had had a similar idea to my own, joined me at my table (they asked first!) and then… we had a fantastic unplanned seminar on what had been taught over the past few weeks, about mobile apps, about Steve Jobs, about programming, about social media,  and then finally about learning spaces! During this enthralling conversation (I think we all learned a lot in this half-hour) one asked why schools didn’t create spaces like this and I saw immediately what he meant because it had been percolating in my head at that moment too. Why can’t we all have learning rooms where the furniture offers visitors choice of working areas, where the wireless Internet access is a background consideration that “just works with a quick log-in”, where there isn’t a designated space for the teacher to lecture from, where learning becomes personalised? All three of us had mobile devices on the table between the cups and plates and augmented our conversation with these when we needed to: I showed them Twitter for example and explained why it was such a great resource for me to make contact with others who share similar interests. I posted this tweet:

Coffee chains have undoubtedly studied the effect of their environment on their customers from a financial point of view and have generally come to the conclusion that a varied, customisable, slightly eclectic environment is the worm that keeps us on the hook. So who is doing this for education? There are educators in each authority, in roles from classroom to management, who are striving to find the best furniture or layout for existing classrooms. Most of us tend to tinker with our rooms if we can. But if you’ll indulge the point of view of a Computing teacher for a moment (well you’ve got this far!) this may be the problem – moving the furniture in any space which has been built to deliver the Victorian model of education has inherent restrictions but when you also have electrical equipment, cables and power sockets to worry about you really can’t change very much without the firm belief and financial support of your school management team. And then you move on and the next teacher has a different idea… it’s really not that feasible an option for any subject with fixed resources.

But why do they have to be fixed? Hasn’t the last decade of technical innovation shown that mobile devices are here to stay? That an increasing number of learners arrive in classrooms with devices that can easily be personalised to suit their learning, rather than forcing the learner to make use of a machine set up to a generic specification? Are educators really, as a group, nervous about losing control?

And who is studying the effect of the coffee shop environment on learners? Well, a few have come to my attention. I stumbled on a paper whilst writing this blog post called “The Classroom Coffeehouse” which focusses on reworking the layout of an English classroom to promote sharing of written work between New Jersey 8th graders – well worth a read! Also highly recommended is the well-considered post “The Coffee Shop: A Classroom for Creativity, Reflections from a Coffee Shop in Harbin, China“. The Edinburgh Coffee Morning model is something which I envied a few years ago while at Inverurie and provides a nice text break below!

Edinburgh Coffee Morn Stop Frame from brandfeed on Vimeo.

Edinburgh Coffee Morning: from Mike Coulter, DigitalAgency.com on Vimeo.

Last night I read Angela Maiers’ post “What If You Knew You Mattered?” where she describes an increasingly common experience of customer non-service where recognition of failure and empathy with the customer would do much more than a discount voucher. It’s at the core of GIRFEC policy for teachers to make their learners feel included and respected while at the same time encouraging their development as respectful and inclusive citizens. The two words “you matter” apply to each young person who steps into your classroom, but if you are delivering your education as if you were working a conveyor belt at a factory when do you have the time to make sure your well planned generic summaries (and even the differentiated materials) are actually arriving at their destination? Through spending some time listening to the learners and learning something new yourself. Where better than the relaxed environment of a coffee shop?

I’m not advocating that we all abandon our classrooms for the nearest coffee chain but that school leaders and decision makers take a look around the wider world and really see what engages people. I highly recommend you view the articles, blog posts and videos I’ve linked to if you are in any way interested in developing mobile learning, and please suggest more using the comments option below! I am already planning to make this chance meeting a more formal part of my teaching at upper secondary level in the next term and although, yes, it will be more work initially filling in risk assessments and carefully planning my mobile lessons and – depending on the numbers – speaking nicely to the manager of the coffee shop! Escaping the classroom might be just what our learners need, and all it took was a coffee.