Friday, October 22, 1999 Published at 11:03 GMT 12:03 UK
Warning over schools' use of computers
Owen Lynch sees hidden cost dangers
Schools are being warned of the pitfalls in trying to sustain an educational role for computers in their classrooms.
The man charged with seeing that technology supports the government's drive to raise educational standards has given a reminder that 'content is king' - and that schools should not forget the ongoing costs.
Becta, the British Educational Communications and Technology Agency, is charged with providing the professional expertise the Department for Education requires to support the development of the web-based National Grid for Learning.
He said that the pace of change in information and communication technology (ICT) was so rapid that it was difficult for teachers to keep up.
"I have observed in schools, not unsurprisingly, that some of our teachers' and schools' more effective use of ICT lies in refined and embedded practice, built over many years and often using what others would describe as outdated technology," he said.
"The need to develop, evaluate and refine practice while engaging with emerging technologies will be a constant challenge to us.
Making a difference
"We should not be seduced with the promise that the next emerging technology will deliver our promised educational outcomes. It is only when we combine the capabilities of the technology with teachers' own remarkable skills that we truly make a difference through ICT."
He said the recent history of ICT in schools "has been characterised by under resourcing, low levels of ICT capability and confidence among our teachers and little evidence of institutions developing sustainable infrastructures of effective practice".
Three things could change this - the government's commitment, as shown by its £1.7bn investment over the next three years, the opportunities provided by new multimedia and communications technologies, and growing experience of ICT in education.
The way to make these opportunities available to all was through the National Grid for Learning, he said.
In the past, investment in ICT had been so low that it "could often be seen as peripheral to the central process of teaching and learning in schools".
"Too often teachers had limited personal access and insufficient resource levels for their pupils to allow for the effective and efficient implementation of ICT.
"Furthermore the variance from school to school could be enormous and there is still a strong concern that a pupil's access to educational ICT is too much of a lottery based on where they live and what school they go to."
"The issue ... is not e-mail addresses for all pupils but appropriate and extensive access for our pupils which is clearly linked to educational objectives," he said.
There were cost implications in providing access for pupils and for teachers - including teachers' home use.
A key problem, especially for smaller schools, was finding the necessary expertise.
"At present, we have an ICT infrastructure in our schools which is varied, often not compatible with current standards and outdated."
Mr Lynch compared this to the danger from an iceberg: above water, the equipment costs - lurking below, the cost of software, installation, training and so on.
Data from the commercial sector indicated that the capital cost of a PC represented only one fifth of the yearly cost of running it, he said.
"In the past, senior managers, teachers and ancillaries have invested a significant amount of their time making the infrastructure of ICT work within their schools and classrooms," he said.
"Worthy as this is it is a distraction from their professional roles. Our teaching profession as it enters the 21st century, has an entitlement to a quality of ICT services that allows them to focus on teaching and learning and not be required to maintain infrastructure."
A key objective of the learning grid was to provide "educationally valuable content".
Over the last twelve months 260,000 pages of content had been added, and usage had increased from zero to nearly two million hits a week - half of that outside of the school day, he said.
But if there were not clear educational purposes for it all, teachers' growing confidence in ICT would "evaporate".
"Our failure in the past to articulate a robust evidential base for ICT's use has allowed many to marginalise its use and others to use it ineffectively," he said.
There was "an essential need to demonstrate gains in learning outcomes" - and teachers and headteachers would be crucial to the process of making ICT "educationally indispensable".