New Realities for Computer Use in Schools

Posted in : Cassidy's Comments on 11 December 2017
Frank Cassidy
Former Principal & Regional Officer of ASCL

When I began teaching in 1977 computer use in the classroom was not even considered possible. Today it is an ever-present, dominant reality. So how are we as teachers adapting to this change with all its attendant opportunities and threats?

Sugata Mitra, Professor of Educational Technology at the School of Education, Communication and Language Sciences at Newcastle University, has written extensively on the future of teaching in this new technological landscape.

He was given the $1m TED Prize in 2013 in recognition of his work and to help build a School in the Cloud, a creative online space where children from all over the world can gather to answer 'big questions', share knowledge and benefit from help and guidance from online educators. He thinks that in the future the role of teachers will be similar to that of a football coach.

 “Children can now go out into cyberspace and the teacher is the friend at the back telling them where they might need to go.”

In May 2013, Mitra did a Ted talk on the “school in the cloud” where he discussed his hole in the wall experiment. Mitra placed a computer in a kiosk in a Delhi slum and allowed children to use it freely. He found that many of them, lots who had never seen a computer, could teach themselves all on their own. He feels that there will have to be a dramatic change to teacher training to maximise the opportunities that this research highlights.

In the USA concerns have been expressed at how schools are not responding quickly enough to this new reality. Darrell M. West and Joshua Bleiberg argue that advances in information technology have revolutionized how people communicate and learn in nearly every aspect of modern life, but that education is lagging behind. They suggest that technology has failed to transform our schools because the education governance system insulates them from the disruptions that technology creates in other organizations

They argue that the best education technologies enable teachers to do more with fewer resources. Communication platforms like Twitter, Facebook, or Tumblr enable dynamic communication with students. They advocate teacher-empowering technologies, including mobile apps that grade written student work and provide lesson plan databases.

On the other hand here in the UK, Baroness Susan Greenfield, Director of the Institute for the Future of the Mind at the University of Oxford, has raised concerns that computers in schools may do more harm than good.  She is concerned that students are losing the ability to study properly. Constant use of the internet has rewired their brains to function differently from those of earlier generations. They skip from topic to topic in an "associative" mode of thinking, and are less capable of the linear thought required for skills like reading and writing at length. Some have even warned that the result could be greater rates of mental illness.

These ideas would certainly chime with the experience of teachers in the classrooms of our schools as they face the day to day struggle to capture and hold the attention of pupils used to instant information access on their phones. Can we still educate in the same way as before, or must we adapt and embrace this agenda of technology?

Research by Prof David Nicholas  carried out for the BBC2 series The Virtual Revolution, seems to confirm the notion that we have evolved into competent information-grabbers. Young people in particular, he says, seem to "skip over a virtual landscape", hopping from website to website to find facts: "Nobody seemed to be staying anywhere for very long."

Children’s author Julia Donaldson made headlines in 2011 when she declined to have an official app for her best seller, The Gruffalo:

In response the publishers reminded us of the suspicion with which Socrates greeted writing. He thought that people wouldn’t remember things if they were reading them rather than listening to them. Now we’re worried about not remembering things because we’re reading them on a screen not a page.”

So these new realities of learning styles are here to stay and schools must prepare pupils for them and through them. Teaching pupils how to find appropriate, balanced, accurate information will become crucial but with this approach come problems. Sadly we must also prepare children for the demons that stalk this new virtual landscape.

 Writing in the Scotsman in October 2017, Kathryn Tremlett from the South West Grid for Learning, (SWGL) has alerted schools to a new set of computer related concerns. She recommends that teachers learn about the Tor browser which can eventually give access to sites filled with illegal items, such as drugs, guns and child pornography, as well as terrorist training manuals. The browser can be downloaded free of charge and allows people to be anonymous online, making it extremely difficult to trace searches back to its original computer. This area of the internet has become known as “The Dark Web”. As a leading internet safety charity they suggest that teachers should familiarise themselves with the dark web and discuss it with pupils,.

Of course this kind of computer education is not currently compatible with school network use. The standard Department of Education advice for schools on this area is available at the links below.

In summary it states that in addition to the filtering service provided to school networks by the ICT provider C2K, the Department of Education circular 2016 27 on online safety gives very comprehensive guidance to schools. Any change to the status quo will have to start here.

 Recommended good practice actions for schools at present include; Auditing current provision; Assessing staff training needs on a regular basis; Communicating important online safety advice, concerns and current issues to parents and carers; Delivering an age-related online safety curriculum to pupils;

The speed of change is bewildering at times and as already pointed out schools and governments find change difficult. Failure to keep up with this issue however is not an option, as it is connected to the way pupils now enter the world. Like many traditional educators I hope we can hold onto those aspects of learning which shaped our culture and our world while we “boldly go...”

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This article is correct at 11/12/2017

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Frank Cassidy
Former Principal & Regional Officer of ASCL

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