Closing the digital divide

Funds are going begging as schools fail to embrace ICT in the classroom, says Amy McLellan
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The Independent Online

Embedded: the word conjures up images of flak-jacketed journalists reporting from the front line, but it's also the word the Government has chosen to convey its aspiration for the use of information and communication technology (ICT) in the classroom.

That aspiration is to embed, or integrate, ICT into everyday classroom life. In an ICT-embedded classroom, children would move seamlessly from group discussions about the Cold War, stimulated by the use of an interactive whiteboard showing archive news footage of the Cuban missile crisis, to working on science hand-outs that have been tailored to their specific needs through the use of sophisticated software packages and collaborating on music projects with another school through a high-speed broadband internet connection.

"The aim is to use the technology to improve learning strategies and create a deeper level of engagement," says Helen Walker, of the government agency Becta. "Research does seem to show that pupils show more sophisticated levels of understanding when they use new technologies."

The Government has certainly made money available to realise its ICT vision: in primary schools, average expenditure on ICT has risen from £68m in 1998 to £201m in 2003 and in secondary schools from £143m to £223m. In January, £25m was earmarked for spending on interactive whiteboards: large, touch-sensitive screens that can display video, animation, graphics and sound. It is estimated that £1.8bn has been spent over six years on equipping schools with computers and connectivity.

Yet take-up of the funds has been surprisingly slow. With the clock ticking down to the 31 August deadline for spending the 2003 tranche of e-learning credits (a £1,000 pot plus £10 per pupil for each school), it appears that only about £35m of the £100m purse has been spent. And a May 2004 Ofsted report found that most schools were still falling far short of the Government's vision: inspectors described pupils' ICT experiences as "sporadic and teacher-dependent".

ICT evangelists are dismayed by the hesitant take-up of the funding. But a flood of different ICT initiatives wedded to the usual mire of jargon and acronyms doesn't make the process easy for time-pressed teachers.

As a quick glance at the website Curriculum Online will testify, the e-learning funding has stimulated digital content suppliers into overdrive; teachers can spend more time researching the best product to buy than they do using it in the classroom. There are some useful filters out there, such as teem.org.uk, which has more than 1,700 independent product evaluations, or schoolzone.co.uk, with more than 41,000 teacher-reviewed education sites to choose from.

The emergence of an ICT champion within a school appears to be key to overcoming these hurdles. Otherwise, says one insider, many schools, overwhelmed by more immediate pressures, will continue merely to pay lip service to the concept.

Does this matter? Is the use of pen, paper and old-fashioned chalk really a sign that a school is failing its pupils? Julian Mobbs, of Channel 4's 4Learning business, which supplies digital content for use in school classrooms, says ICT is about "making good teachers better".

Philip Collie, the managing director of Schoolzone, says: "You can have 30 children working on the same exercise on the network but working at different levels. And, with good software, the children won't even know they are working at different levels."

By removing the stigma of failure for less able pupils, and allowing the brightest to stretch their talents, the technology ensures pupils remain motivated and engaged. It's also good news for teachers, saving time on administration, marking and reports. "Some new packages can monitor how the child is doing every day, how he or she compares with the rest of the class, where they peak on an exercise, and where they are struggling," explains Collie.

But embedded ICT is no magic solution to the problem of teacher workloads. "The more ICT you get, the more you can do, so in reality the workload just expands," says Collie. "It improves what children experience but it will never really cut down on a teacher's workload."

education@independent.co.uk

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