What are the features of a good ICT activity?

I was invited to give a talk recently, and one of the questions I was asked to address was: what are the characteristics of a good ICT activity? This is one of the questions which, at first glance, seems really easy to answer – until you get down to thinking about it. Because what the question is really asking, I think, is what makes a good ICT activity good in a unique way: that is, unique to ICT.

Could you turn your classroom into a 'risk factory'? Photo by Stuart Cale http://www.flickr.com/photos/kyz/

Now, we can trot out the characteristics of a good classroom activity in general terms quite easily. It should be engaging, challenging, motivating and lead to greater understanding by the student. But that list could (should) apply to any area of the curriculum.

In fact, I could come up with only three uniquely ICT characteristics of good ICT activities, and they are as follows:

They should have a ‘real’ purpose

I can most easily explain what I mean by this through an example. If you were to ask the kids to make a five minute video about anything, as long as they used the zoom, and a few effects, that would seem utterly pointless to them. Another example: getting them to create a spreadsheet with IF functions all over the place, for no other purpose than including the IF function.

There is an exception to this, of course, which is that that you may want to set these sorts of assignments in order to have the students try out and practise certain skills. Even then, I’d argue that the most likely probability of success would be to set the activities in a ‘real’ context, ie a context which seems real even if you have made it up.

For example, you could ask them to make a video of some birds in the local park. They would have to use the zoom function in order to do so. For the spreadsheet, you could ask them to create a spreadsheet that alertsyou if you’re making a loss, rather than a profit. That could be done using an IF function.

To be honest, this pitfall, of setting meaningless activities, is not unique to ICT. You can get it in maths and English especially, but ICT seems to lend itself to it somehow. I wonder if in the near future we will start to see a lot of pointless computer programming activities making their way into the market place?

They should encourage creativity through risk-taking

Given that whatever you do with educational technology can be undone, tweaked, tried again slightly differently, and so on, there is no reason whatsoever that the students shouldn’t take a few risks. If the computer program crashes halfway through, you have to find the offending code and change it. If a video receives a panning by the rest of the class, it can be re-shot or re-edited. In my opinion, every ICT activity should be open-ended enough to allow for some risk-taking by the students.

They should allow the unexpected to happen

This is, to an extent, an extension of the previous point. More and more schools are allowing (at least some) students to bring in their own technology. That means, not only their own devices, but their preferred apps on those devices, and new apps that they download and try out. And there are new apps coming out all the time. I think teachers need to be prepared for students creating and doing things that nobody has ever seen before. That is a real challenge for the teacher, not least in working out how to assess something that is completely new. But if that sort of thing is to happen, not only must the activity set be open-ended, but also the method and criteria of assessing the result.

I think this is not unique to ICT, because you could, in theory, achieve the same result in English, ie a student could in effect invent a new style of writing. I think that is less likely to happen than in ICT – or, at least, I think it is probably easier for the ICT teacher to set up the right activity and conditions for something unique to happen than it is for the English teacher, because of the nature of the subjects involved.

I’d be interested to hear what others think of my suggestions.

You may find 25 Features of Outstanding ICT Lessons interesting to read.

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