spiked-seminars: The lessons of ICT and education

spiked has been organising a series of seminars in the run-up to its London conference, Don't Blow IT. Toby Marshall and Chris Yapp led the discussion on ICT and education.

Various Authors

Topics Politics

spiked organised a series of seminars in the run-up to its London conference, Don’t Blow IT. Toby Marshall and Chris Yapp led the discussion on ICT and education.

Toby Marshall: A hi-tech lowering of standards

Without a doubt, ICT is a useful new teaching tool, and investment in, and experimentation with, this technology should be supported for this reason. But to argue that ICT could ‘transform’ or ‘revolutionise’ schooling was always to confuse the ends and the means of education, and to evade the more fundamental questions of teachers’ professionalism and the curriculum.

The hype surrounding the educational potential of Information and Communications Technology (ICT) is an expression of deeper, and regressive, trends in education.

The elevation of ICT was a characteristic trope of the early period of New Labour. For all the tough talk of standards and failing schools, Labour had no real view on the content of schooling – over and above the obvious focus on the three Rs. This contributed to the elevation of ICT.

Extending schools’ connectivity through ICT gave the appearance of hi-tech modernisation and ‘new thinking’, even if the technology was often used for highly primitive educational tasks, and had, in fact, been a feature of many schools for nearly 20 years. But perhaps more importantly, ICT had no fixed educational meaning, and so its promotion did not require that New Labour elaborate, or defend, any particular educational agenda.

More recently, however, government agencies seem to have become more measured in their promotion of ICT. Launching the government consultation paper Curriculum Online in 2001, then secretary of state for education David Blunkett argued that the use of ICT in schools needed to be balanced with more ‘traditional teaching methods’. He went on to say that ICT made possible the delivery of highly specialised content to small groups of pupils, in forms that could be tailored to the unique learning styles of individual pupils. This, he concluded, made it possible to develop a truly ‘individualised’ curriculum customised to the unique preferences and aptitudes of pupils.

But while New Labour’s ‘individualised’ curriculum may well be a technical possibility, it is far from clear that this is educationally desirable. Surely the primary function of the school curriculum is to expose pupils to a range of ideas and skills, the selection of which should not be made on the basis of an individual pupil’s preferences, but on the expert judgement of those able to evaluate their cultural significance and educational value.

The worry, for both educationalists and advocates of the educational use of ICT, is that this technology is in danger of being used to effect the further fragmentation of the school curriculum. In doing so, the use of ICT could contribute to the lowering of educational standards in the UK.

In many respects, the debate about the educational use of ICT is still in its infancy. But two key issues can be clarified.

The promotion of ICT works best when it is organic and volitional, using the initiative of teachers – rather than regulatory compliance – as its driver. The imposition of ICT leads to unthinking and formulaic teaching practice.

Technology is a tool, not a strategy. But it is a powerful tool nonetheless, which could be used to implement progressive educational strategies as well as regressive ones. Unfortunately it seems that in the current policy climate, the promotion of ICT is likely to bring about a hi-tech lowering of standards.

Toby Marshall lectures in media studies in east London.

Read on:

ICTeachers – a revolution in schooling? by Toby Marshall

Chris Yapp: Re-engineering education

Information and Communications Technologies (ICTs) are both a cause of change and a means of effecting change. As Sir Claus Moser observed in the early 1990s, ‘Education is unique in public spending in that it is both the cause and consequence of economic progress’.

Combining these two observations creates a landscape where any attempt to separate cause and effect and prove links between investment in IT and improvement in education is fraught with analytical difficulty, and nearly any prejudice can be justified by the complexity of the linkages.

The growth of increasingly global communications via the internet is increasing the extent of interdependence between nation states and blocks, and facilitating the globalisation of the economy. Oliver Sparrow at Chatham House in 1999 observed that, by around 2020-25, the world population of graduates will exceed the world population of 1900.

This increasingly well-educated population will raise educational standards, as well as changing our understanding of what skills are needed by those individuals, firms and nations that are needed to compete in this new economic landscape.

In this respect, ICTs are creating change. They are also a means of managing these changes. The lesson of 50 years of investment in ICT around the world is that the benefits of IT in all sectors come from managing changes differently in the light of technological progress, rather than simply doing what has been done traditionally more efficiently through the use of ICTs. This lies at the heart of the word ‘re-engineering’.

For me, the challenge of ICT in education is not about PC suites in schools, laptops for teachers, electronic whiteboards in classrooms or connecting public libraries to the internet. I would argue that these are necessary but not sufficient to address the challenges that we face in the globalised economy.

The challenge, as I see it, is to re-engineer education to support lifelong learning for all. Investment in hardware and software has to be part of an overall programme of change management in the curriculum and developments in teaching and learning.

I would define a re-engineered education system as having four characteristics. First, creating a culture that supports lifelong learning. Second, giving access to lifelong learning on a socially inclusive basis. Third, putting the learner at the heart of the system. Last, but not least, learning is both a social and a socialising experience, not a technological experience.

The appropriate use of ICT in education should be the debate, not books v computers. The book has been the most successful example of information technology in human history and may well stay that way – even if it becomes an e-book.

ICT is not a threat to good teachers, but it is the best tool we have had in human history to offer educational opportunities to every citizen of our planet through empowering teachers. That is about politics, not IT.

Chris Yapp is an ICL Fellow specialising in Lifelong Learning and the Information Society. He can be contacted at He is also a director of the Internet Society of England.

Don’t Blow IT was a one-day conference produced by spiked, in partnership with the
Internet Society of England and GAP21 and sponsored by cScape Strategic Internet Services, held on Thursday 27 September 2001 at the Bloomberg Auditorium in London.

Read on:

From ABC to ICT, by Helene Guldberg

ICTeachers – a revolution in schooling?, by Toby Marshall

Teaching by telly, by Toby Marshall

Computers and teachers: a lesson, by Joanna Williams

Don’t blow IT, by Sandy Starr

spiked-issue: Education

spiked-issue: Don’t blow IT

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

Topics Politics


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