The Guardian has offered to try and improve digital literacy in the UK, after a series of news articles stating that the quality of ICT lessons in UK schools is not good enough. I argue it is not the quality of the lessons, but the quality of the material taught, and the total inflexibility of the British curriculum, particularly in secondary schools, that is not good enough.
The thrust of previous articles has seen a chubby finger pointed accusingly at the fact that we need to teach more programming skills (see Programming should take pride of place in our schools).
I don’t agree. Saying we need to teach 11 year olds programming skills is like saying we need to teach 11 year old English students how to write a novel, or 11 year old scientists about Higgs-Bosom. We don’t. We give them the building blocks of that potential for future use. We teach them about sentence and paragraph structure, about rules of physics and life cycles, and computer fluency.
Programming, in its raw form, should be available for those with the aptitude and interest at 16 to study further, and in my opinion, is for the realms of the university student to become an ace coder. In the most part, those who excel at programming in secondary schools would be teaching their teachers, its something 14 years ‘get in to’ in their bedrooms using the Internet as their resource and playground, not through tapping out a few lines in the classroom next to twenty-four others who really don’t care.
The UK national curriculum for ICT is so archaic, so mind-numbingly boring (and easy) that its no wonder there are complaints about the subject. Here are five points to improve digital literacy in UK schools.
1) Improve the curriculum at Key Stage Three
The current curriculum at Key Stage three takes students in 6 week topic blocks through the tedious humdrum of the Microsoft Office package. Sure, some schools may allow teachers to use things like Prezi and Scratch, but all must plough through Word, Powerpoint, Excel, Access and Publisher. Powerpoint is a useful tool throughout a child’s educational career (or one of its alternatives).
Excel and Access however – they can wait. We should be using KS3 to engage children with technology through ICT and all their other subjects. Video production and editing, audio production and editing, using smartphones and tablets (like they do in real life outside the classroom), digital storytelling, blogging and connecting with classes around the country and the world, digital photography and editing, graphic design, web design, flash and digital citizenship.
2) A Foundation course in essential skills
At the start of secondary school all students can start with a term long foundation course in essential computer skills for learning. That would include a proficiency check in Word and Powerpoint, a study skills course. In doing this, all other Year 7 teachers will know that by the end of term one, all their students should be able to create, save and edit documents and presentations. They should be able to use email to send and receive, download and upload files. They should be able to format a document with name, title, date.
2) Improve GCSE ICT
Current GCSE ICT is a very poor course. And I’ve seen kids, even in my short stint teaching it in the UK, struggle with it. And its not because they can’t do it. It’s because their minds are closed after years of the same boring rubbish in their ICT classrooms. All they see when they enter that room full of computers is a long, dull lesson looking at a page of word processing. Revamp the GCSEs. Bring in alternative methods of publishing work. Take out all the MS Office nonsense from KS3 and bring it in here. With an interesting, engaging Key Stage three period, students are more likely to show an interest when undertaking their GCSE studies in ICT, and slightly older students are more likely to be engaged in less interesting things like spreadsheets and databases.
In my experience, the outcomes of an entire KS3 scheme of work taught to Year 7 can be learnt in a couple of lessons by older students. Learning formulas in Excel for example.
3) Involve everyone else
And by this I mean cross-curricular use of technology. Again, KS3 three is the place to sow the seeds for this. English teachers need to have a class blog. Not just because blogs are great, but because students also indirectly learn technical skills…how to navigate a CMS like WordPress, start new posts, reply to posts, add comments. Of course, digital citizenship. The possibilities are endless across all subjects, and it comes down to training and the willingness of the staff to improve their lessons.
4) Improve Resources
How many schools are using Google Apps for Education? How many schools have a CMS like Moodle or Frog and are getting the best out of them? How many schools see educational technology as key? To change perspectives a fundamental shift in what ICT is all about needs to occur.
5) Improve teacher training
Paradoxically, when I started my PGCE with around 10 other ICT trainees I was concerned that I didn’t have enough technical knowledge. I was expecting a more computer science orientated course. However, the calibre of the trainees really shocked me. Some of them struggled with Internet browsers. Only a couple had heard of RSS, no one blogged. The concept of integration across the curriculum was a novel one. The end result was a course that produced robots trained to teach those units of work and exam courses, but not much else. I’m not convinced many would have the ability to take an opportunity outside of this bleak existence of the British ICT teacher in order to push the boundaries of what is needed for true ‘digital literacy’. So the quality of teacher training needs to improve too.