Why schools don't need ICT
ATL member and head of digital strategy at Radley College Ian Yorston explains why investment in ICT doesn't necessarily pay
If you had to spend a million pounds, you'd really hope to have something to show for it. Yet most schools have spent at least that on ICT and get nothing obvious in return — aside from a few hundred PCs running Windows XP and a handful of smart gadgets.
Actually, it's worse than that because, despite spending all this money — and through no real fault of their own — schools have finished up at the wrong end of the ICT revolution.
Every business in the world has invested in ICT. They have done so either to save money or to improve productivity, or both. By and large, they have seen good returns on their investment: business systems have improved.
A number of businesses have used smart technology to transfer their work flows on to their own customers. Many supermarkets have persuaded us to scan our own items as we walk around their stores. The airlines have convinced us to book online, check-in online and assign our own seats.
Schools are different. They're different because they have invested millions of pounds in ICT for no obvious cost saving whatsoever. Of course, they have acquired plenty of additional overheads — a new ICT department, complete with technicians, network managers and yet another head of department.
Valuable classroom space has been re-equipped to provide us with ICT suites. Blackboards have not only changed their hue but also their complexity. They're now smarter than teachers. Writing on the board has become an expensive mistake that may invalidate the warranty.
Valuable contact time has been offered up to teach ICT while staff training opportunities have been squandered on yet another integration of Microsoft Office or the introduction of an even newer, smarter, brighter VLE — whatever one of those might be. But no money has been saved whatsoever.
Nor have we seen any obvious gains in productivity. We're not teaching larger cohorts. Pupils are not taking any more subjects or acquiring better grades. No one has identified improvements across the academic landscape that they are confident to ascribe to ICT. Indeed, for the most part — and for most teachers — ICT is at best a distraction and at worst a hurdle to the continuity of classroom teaching.
Of course, it wasn't supposed to be like this. And it wasn't for a lack of promise. It's just that the utopian dream doesn't actually run on Windows Vista or XP. And it isn't compatible with Macs.
The real curiosity is that, even when the newest, fastest, coolest computers have been purchased, heads promptly sit down to draw up policy statements that effectively cripple the machines before they have even been booted up.
Now that we have finally built the Library of Alexandria — now that, thanks to Google, our students really do have access to all the world's knowledge in a curated and useful context, why would we want to limit their access?
We block Facebook and Twitter and YouTube. We denigrate Wikipedia and HowStuffWorks. We ban mobile phones and digicams. We even make our students write by hand. No wonder they think we're all closet Luddites. We're cutting off our noses to spite our faces. Students are not particularly constrained by our attempts to lock them out of virtual space.
Despite the lessons of prohibition and our extensive experience of teenage ingenuity, we still believe that we can control our students with a few lines of code and an 'Acceptable use policy', which is nice but, frankly, naïve.
It only takes one smart kid to bypass all our passwords, proxies, policies and procedures. One smart kid who can set up a wireless network of their own, a proxy server in their home and a password sniffer so good it could search for truffles. And I'm betting that you have at least one smart kid in your school.
Our schools are now a desert swept with the winds of yesterday's technology; meanwhile our students can be found drinking from an oasis of smartphones, smart apps and smart interfaces. They have answers to questions we haven't even dared to ask. They outsmart us at every turn.
Teenagers upgrade their mobile phone every 12 months. Even the socially disadvantaged are one step ahead of their school's ICT. That's not a problem. That's a huge opportunity schools should grasp. It's an opportunity to save money and upgrade our thinking about ICT.
Even last year's smartphone will operate as a calculator. And a book reader. It will translate the Bible from the original Hebrew and can differentiate Sin(x). It can pinpoint both the Battle of Hastings and the Belt of Orion. It will act as a word processor, a piano and a spirit level. Not bad for a bit of kit that your school didn't purchase and doesn't maintain.
Schools don't need ICT. It's coming through our doors every day. We just need to adopt and adapt a little bit.
Ian Yorston blogs at www.unreasonableman.net and can be found on Twitter as @IanYorston.
Our schools are now a desert swept with the winds of yesterday's technology