ICT: Irrelevant Curriculum Today?

ICT teacher Nigel Willetts discusses ICT qualifications and their associated syllabuses. This is a longer-than-usual article, but it's a great rant read. Enjoy!

Nigel WillettsI apologise in advance. What follows is a rant! Terry was forewarned! However, the purpose of such a rant is to instigate a debate with regard to what we, as ICT teachers/specialists are expected to deliver and examine our pupils on in our schools. The focus is firmly on the GCSE/AS and A2 ICT curriculum. I am not even sure if I have any tangible answers myself, but, in my experience of educationalists, we all love a good rant/debate, don’t we?

I entered the teaching profession on the cusp of a new age. The age of Technology, aka ICT.

Schools were investing heavily in hardware and software provision, priding themselves on the technological provision available to their students. Such provision became an extremely important marketing ploy when promoting the wares of a school. There was a shortage of qualified ICT teachers and I remember feeling extremely confident of a acquiring a teaching position during my last year of Teacher Training. ICT Quangos were plentiful! Take your pick, guys, jobs a plentiful!

We were told that ICT would revolutionise the face of teaching and learning, with the role of the teacher being less of the sage on the stage to more of a guide from the side! We were heading for an era where teachers would become holograms, beamed into the living rooms of students to deliver lessons! The curriculum would be learner-driven.

Such was the importance placed upon ICT that it became a core curriculum subject. The notion of ICT literacy was comparable to that of the 3 R’s. I fully appreciate that there can be no escaping the impact that Information and Communication Technology has had on education over the past twenty years. When faced with a steam-rolling technology, you either become part of the technology or part of the road!

Pretty much everything that I need for teaching, assessing and recording, is on my school network – schemes of work, lesson plans, resources, the lot! Students can follow instructions as to what they need to do and detailed lesson plans are available to teachers as well as hyperlinked resources. Parents also have access to a wealth of school information and resources via VLEs.

Today’s children, the ‘Digital Natives’, enjoy and flourish in an information landscape that would have been unimaginable when most of us were in school, and it dwarfs, by comparison, the experiences that they have in their classrooms. 

And yet, 12 years down the line, I find myself delivering the same old ICT curriculum that, I feel, has had its day. Who said that ICT was ‘fluid’? I feel stale, students do not regard it as a ‘proper’ subject and the word on social networks is that the Government no longer considers ICT as being as important a subject as they once did, removing its core curriculum subject status. What has changed?

A few years ago, I was invited by the British Computer Society to attend a formal dinner in London to discuss the issue of the impact of ICT in schools and what changes should be recommended to QCA in light of their proposed shake up of the (examinable) ICT curriculum.

An eclectic mix of professionals were present (including Terry), ranging from teachers, politicians and people working in industry. At last, I thought, a perfect opportunity to engage in an honest and frank discussion that may have an influence on QCA. Such a discussion did ensue. The teachers felt that the ICT curriculum was dull, with AS/A2 coursework being no more than an extended exercise in word processing! The industrialists bemoaned their lack of suitably qualified ICT personnel. The BCS representatives advised of an acute shortage of potential quality ICT bods coming through from schools and Universities.

Unfortunately, my initial enthusiasm that change was imminent was both naïve and short lived. I look back at that evening. Nothing has really changed. The revamped ICT curriculum is still very much of a muchness. Ah well, at least the food (and company) was good!

Indeed, Dr Eric Schmidt, Head of Google, is heavily critical of the British Education system, highlighting the fact that the UK has an obsession with the ‘luvvy’ subjects at the expense of science and engineering. Of more relevance to this article, Dr Schmidt is quoted as saying that ‘I was flabbergasted to learn that today computer science isn’t even taught as standard in UK schools’.

The UK, he goes on to say, invented photography, TV and computers in both concept and practice! How then, are we preparing our potential inventors and future Captains of Industry? Spreadsheets, Databases, PowerPoint anyone? (“UK Must Shun Luvvy School Subjects Says Google Chief”, Daily Mail, Saturday 27/08/11)

So what examinable ICT content should we be teaching in schools? Should it be Office skills, computer programming or web page design? Should we consider combining the two disciplines of Computer Science and ICT? Did any of our great programmers, web designers, robotic specialists, CGI experts and CAD authors learn any of their technical skills at school via the ICT curriculum? I doubt it very much!

My personal perception of a solid educational base for our students is one in which the information experience of students puts them in control, provides them with information that becomes a raw material for new information experiences.  It should connect them to wings instead of anchors! After all, I keep telling my students that ICT has made the world a smaller place!

My perfect classroom would be more like a global trolley car, in which we can transport our students to places all over the world and visit any time that has been sufficiently documented. Students thrive when being motivated by something that is contingent to them now.

Do we really need an exhaustive ICT skills list? How about a set of realistic ICT projects that are purposeful, engaging and meaningful for our students?

Frustratingly, we effectively ‘power down’ our digital natives as soon as they approach the school gates. Mobile phones, Ipods, Ipads, and Blackberry’s all switched off! Internet provision in a lot of schools is so aggressively filtered that many students do not bother with it.

I am aware that some of the more pioneering schools are utilising such pieces of kit in the classroom, but not many! Imagine how much more engaging the ICT lessons would be for our students if they were allowed to use such hardware in their lessons? I am making an assumption here and would love to hear from any schools that allow and encourage such usage.

I am very much aware of the existence of the BCS Digital qualifications and recently-launched E Safety Course, DIDA and OCR’s Digital Imedia course. Such courses are encouraging, but once again, I feel that only a minority of schools are daring to embrace such qualifications. Probably deciding to stick with what they know! Futurelab have some fantastic ideas and resources.

When I was Head of ICT, I was given free rein to completely revamp the ICT syllabus in Years 7 to 9. So I introduced movie-making and editing, creating music jingles, photograph editing. All fun stuff that the students really enjoyed. However, when it came to GCSE/A Level, I was hamstrung! A return to the traditional ICT Schemes of Work! A similar pattern of ICT delivery is the norm at my current school. Inputs, outputs and the Systems Life Cycle here we come….

Is it beyond the realms of possibility to develop an examinable ICT syllabus that enhances the learning experience of the student and encourages a thirst for collaborative working, creativity, innovation and further study? Whatever happened to the notion of video-conferencing? Yes, the System’s Life Cycle, whilst extremely important, hardly serves to instill a lifelong love of learning, or even ICT for that matter!!

Is it perhaps the fact that Initial Teacher Training courses are failing to provide the much needed ICT specialists? Even in today’s schools, much of the ICT syllabus is delivered as an add-on by other subject teachers. Is ICT losing its impetus as a discrete academic subject, with some schools opting to use ICT skills to enhance academic work for other subjects?

Of course, perhaps my feeling of staleness stems from spending too long at the chalk face? How do History and Mathematics teachers cope with a subject that never really changes? However, if ICT is fluid in nature, then why I am I continuing to deliver the same material that I was twelve years ago? Much has changed in the real world of technology. Imagine the concept of an Ipad twelve years ago?

Rant over! Now, for that debate….

Nigel Willetts has taught in 3 Independent UK Boarding Schools. He is currently Head of Boarding/Senior Housemaster and Teacher of ICT at Lincoln Minster School. He was Head of ICT at Sutton Valence School, Kent, and Housemaster/Teacher of ICT at Stonyhurst College, Lancashire. 

This article first appeared in Computers in Classrooms.