Computers and teachers: a lesson

When education is left to computers, the pupils lose out the most.

Joanna Williams

Joanna Williams
Columnist

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Topics Politics

I like to think of myself as a hardworking and dedicated teacher, and yet I have a confession to make. On Friday afternoons I am ‘in charge’ (and I use the term guardedly) of the class from hell: 20 year eight pupils, all statemented with severe special educational needs and behaviour problems.

Friday afternoons were a nightmare until a colleague let me into the secret of the computer room.

One thing my year eight devils seem to have in common with the majority of the people who work for the Department for Education and Employment (DfEE) is that they are completely bowled over by shiny new computers. Just to enter the room makes them feel privileged. Sitting in front of the machines, they are on their best behaviour – anything to avoid the punishment of not being allowed to use the computer. They look up Pokemon and Britney Spears on the internet, and type up a piece of work completed earlier in the week. There are just two rules: firstly, no gliding across the room on the wheelie chairs; secondly, no shouting out.

I breathe a sigh of relief. Pupils unable to sit still in a classroom for more than five minutes will work in silence on the computers.

But this is not education. Unlike some other teachers I know, at least I admit that these lessons are merely a break for me. The pupils are playing: I am supervising.

Outside of one formal lesson in information and communication technology (ICT) each week, ICT in schools depends upon the whim of the individual subject teacher – with perhaps a nodding reference to the national curriculum. The problem is that many teachers do not know how to use computers well enough themselves to provide stimulating and interesting ICT-based lessons.

At present, computers are used to control and to pacify. They are used for mundane tasks that can be completed by pupils without active engagement with the lesson content. Word processing is merely copying. Internet searches involve typing one or two words and pressing print; research involves selecting the Encarta CD-Rom. Pupils learn little because they are not being challenged or stimulated.

The DfEE (1) recognises this problem, and is trying to rectify it with a number of initiatives. Concerned that some teachers avoided using computers themselves or in their teaching, the DfEE launched ‘Computers for Teachers’ in January 2001 (2): a scheme by which teachers could claim back half the price of a brand new computer – up to £500 in total.

I could not wait to get my hands on the money. But nothing changed about my teaching, and I didn’t learn anything new about computers. I just did everything I previously did on my ageing model on a super-quick new machine.

To solve the problem that teachers would use computers in the classroom in unfocused ways, the DfEE launched the New Opportunities Fund (NOF) (3). Through NOF, large sums of money were made available to every school to ‘buy in’ computer training from government-approved providers.

Again, I was quite excited. There were a number of things I wanted to learn how to do on a computer; I have never used a scanner or a digital camera, I have never tried video conferencing and I have never had a go at web design. Unfortunately, I still haven’t. To the baffled amusement of many colleagues, whose technical prowess was even more limited than mine, we were not actually going to receive any practical training in how to use computers at all.

The Teacher Training Agency (4) outlines a number of learning outcomes for the New Opportunities Fund. Teachers will learn how to use ICT to enhance teaching, especially in whole-class contexts. Teachers will have to demonstrate they can use ICT for planning lessons and assessing work when ICT has been used. Teachers will also be expected to use ICT to keep abreast of the latest educational issues and to share best practice with other colleagues.

These learning outcomes sound worthy enough, but they are flawed. The emphasis is on changing how teachers behave in the classroom: the process of planning, whole-class teaching and assessing pupils’ work. The practical ICT skills of teachers are not enhanced. There is also little fundamental questioning of the role currently played by ICT in education. Typing words into a search engine and printing the output can still qualify as ‘learning’, so long as the teacher has written a decent lesson plan and the tasks are suitably differentiated.

The aim of the Teacher Training Agency seems to be about creating more uniformity within the teaching profession. Through the national curriculum, the government achieved uniformity of lesson content. Until now, the government has never been able to control how this prescribed content should be taught. Now, perhaps, it can.

Lesson plans can be downloaded from the National Grid for Learning (5) – which also presents examples of ‘best practice’. Thousands of pupils can be directed towards the same CD-Rom or computer programme. In some ways, this is to be celebrated. Latin, Greek and Japanese lessons have, until recently, been the preserve of a minority of fee-paying pupils. New websites will offer everybody the chance to learn these subjects.

But there is a major downside. There is, supposedly, no longer any need for an actual teacher with whom to communicate. The professional skills a teacher can offer become largely redundant. There is tacit recognition of this fact within government circles. Old-fashioned teacher:pupil statistics are increasingly replaced by adult:pupil ratios. Unqualified ‘learning support assistants’ can supervise logging on as well as any teacher. Come to think of it, if being adult is the only qualification, we could do worse than count the cleaning and kitchen staff.

When all you need is for somebody to supervise your logging on (6), it is not surprising that the professional confidence of teachers is undermined. And this is not merely a question of collective bruised egos or hurt pride: when education is left to computers, it is the pupils who lose out the most.

No matter how interactive the computer programme, nothing can replace the interaction of one human being with another. Pupils are not robots – they have good days and bad days and they learn in many different ways. Teachers are also individuals, and it is in the complex relationship between the two that real learning lies. A teacher sat in front of a pupil can respond to that pupil’s individual learning needs, recognising when to encourage and when to challenge. No computer, however sophisticated, can do this.

ICT could play an incredibly useful role in education, and open up many new possibilities. As it is, teachers need to be taught how to use the latest technology. But teachers should then be left to make their own decisions about when – or if – it is appropriate to use this technology in the classroom.

Read on:

From ABC to ICT, by Helene Guldberg

spiked-seminars: The lessons of ICT and education, by Toby Marshall and Chris Yapp

ICTeachers – a revolution in schooling?, by Toby Marshall

Teaching by telly, by Toby Marshall

spiked-issue: Education

(1) See the DfEE website
(2) Computers for Teachers is here
(3) See New Opportunities Fund, and also, ‘Getting the most out of the NOF’ here
(4) See the Teacher Training Agency website
(5) See National Grid for Learning website
(6) See ‘Computers as tutors: solving the crisis in education’ here

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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Topics Politics

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