Teaching ICT post-Becta

With the abolition of the British Educational and Communications Technology Agency (Becta), the quango responsible for “leading the national drive to inspire and lead the effective and innovative use of technology throughout learning,” we chat with one ICT teacher who’s about to start a new job in a primary school, about Becta’s role, the value of open source software, and some of his ideas about teaching ICT in the classroom.

Firstly, tell us a little about your background?

I’ve worked inside the Learning Technologies Group at the University of Southampton for about eight years, and spent about four years teaching inside that group, teaching foundation year students, introducing them to computing, making sure their computing skills are up to scratch. I don’t have any current experience teaching inside schools, so my comments are made from the perspective of looking at other people’s research and analysing current reports.
But I am about to start work as an ICT teacher in a junior school.

In your view, will the abolition of Becta make a great difference?

In 1998 when Becta was first formed, educators were not so well informed about ICT, so some of the work they did in that area was probably more relevant or needed. As well being able to block negotiate for hardware and software nationally, they also promoted good quality ICT teaching and laid out guidelines for best practice.

The National Curriculum now has quite detailed requirements on what students should achieve from ICT, based in part on the reports Becta has published. That function has been achieved now. So I can see how there might be good reason to say that a lot of their function has gone. It does mean that education authorities need to replicate the national procurement function in some way, however.

Can moving over to open source software help cut schools’ costs?
In some areas open source software is making inroads into schools, often partly because the people who are implementing the technology are very interested in it, and they work with very limited budgets. Open source is not going to go away, and that’s always going to have to be in the back of the minds of people selling the software – that they have to compete with people who are giving it away, and they have to provide better service that doesn’t necessarily come with open source unless you pay for it.

Given that computing underpins so much of what we do these days, are children simply learning particular office suites ready for some workplaces, or are they able to use computers as a tool for what they want to achieve?
The National Curriculum doesn’t constrain schools in the type of software they teach. Children should be capable of using ICT to communicate and collaborate. They should understand how to use ICT to manipulate information and explore ideas. The difficulty is that teachers have experience of a particular range of software – very often office suites plus whatever their personal interests in computing are. Often this boils down to the Microsoft Office suite.

And that’s fine: so they end up teaching children using those bits of software because those are the ones they understand. It works to a point, but the trouble is children can very easily end up using similar pieces of software and looking for identical features which aren’t there, and then feeling like the software isn’t actually doing what it is they want it to do. Or getting confused between a goal – for example of writing a report, and of demonstrating they can use the functions of a particular piece of software, for example by making the report look snazzy.

In this example, the children are using an office suite for their experience of ICT. If this is all they use computers for, there is a risk that their view of ICT is limited to its application in an office environment.

But teachers can’t be expected to be an expert in every application?

I agree. But user interface design has got to the stage now that a lot of software is very intuitive to use, so what children need to learn is not how to learn software package A or B, but how to understand the concepts of the task that it is that they’re trying to perform – for example, if you’re using an audio editor, you expect to be able to cut sections of audio, splice them, maybe loop sections, things like that. Once you understand those concepts, then regardless of the package you’re using, you can look for those features. If you only ever learn how to do your audio editing using one piece of software, there’s a much greater danger that, instead of understanding the concepts, you get bound to the functions of particular software, and you can’t cope when those buttons are taken away.

From what you know, is this general approach largely adopted in schools?

I think any efforts for it to be varied or for children to experience different ways of doing the same thing are accidental. I can’t see why a school would bother to install two word processors and give children the opportunity to use and compare both. There are obvious cost implications, and for children that are just starting out, this approach might be quite disorientating, so there’s a conflict between learning the first time how to perform a task using software, and understanding generically how to perform that task using a number of different applications.

What have you got in mind for your students when you start your post?

Obviously there’s a curriculum that’s given to me, but I would like to add some features into it – it doesn’t seem there are any lessons at the moment which mix music and ICT; I’d also like to better integrate some art ideas – I’d like to implement some sort of collaborative art creation idea, so rather than using a computer to draw something on the screen, which is actually easier with a pen and paper, the idea of doing something collaboratively where the whole class can work on the same drawing at the same time – I’d like to see what that produces, and whether the children end up collaborating or sabotaging each other!

Thanks very much, and good luck with your new post!

Will the abolition of Becta make a difference to ICT teaching in schools? Should more schools be using open source software? And is our current method of teaching ICT simply training pupils to use particular pieces of software? Over to you…

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