The Royal Society made a convincing argument that ICT should be replaced by a combination of Computer Science and Digital Literacy. The current draft of the new ICT PoS does not live up to this vision.
In my post Scrapping “ICT” on January 18th, I attacked the term “ICT” on the grounds that it confused two concepts: the teaching of technology (which I proposed to call Computer Studies) and the use of technology to improve learning (which I proposed to call education technology).
I had not at that time read the Royal Society report, Shut down or restart?, which had been published five days earlier. This report argued along similar lines to my own, but suggested that the term “ICT” confused not two but five concepts:
- the National Curriculum Subject called “ICT” (itself a combination of many strands);
- the use of generic information technologies (e.g. the internet, VLEs, office software) to support teaching and learning;
- the use of specific technologies to support individual subjects (e.g. weather stations in Geography, MIDI instruments in Music);
- the use of technologies to support teachers’ administrative processes, and the school’s management information systems;
- the physical infrastructure of a school’s computer systems: the networks, printers and so on.
I can agree with the Royal Society that “ICT” confuses many different terms without necessarily agreeing that their five points represent the most helpful classification of the different concepts.
First, the Royal Society makes the important distinction (which I have argued in this blog) between generic and specific technologies—but it uses these terms to distinguish technologies that are specific to particular subjects and does not mention the need to develop technologies which are specific to teaching and learning (indeed, it classifies VLEs as a generic technology). Nor does the Royal Society make clear whether the use of MIDI instruments in music ought to be regarded as an end of music teaching, or a means of teaching music; or whether the software being used will be of a type that students will continue use when they move on to professional recording studios, or whether it has been developed specifically for the classroom. In short, we may need to see specificity in two different dimensions: what is specific to the business of education; what is specific to the curricula of different subjects (i.e. subject-specific technical curricula)—and where these two senses overlap, what is specific to the business of education in particular subjects (i.e. subject-specific educational technology).
Second, I am not sure that it is useful to make a clear distinction between the instructional and the administrative use of technology. True, the division between the MIS and the VLE is evident in our current ed-tech landscape. But a significant part of teaching is about good classroom administration: the control of assignment, progression, differentiation and remediation—and all these functions need to be better handled by software which bridges the gap between the administrative and instructional domains.
With the one exception of what I would call subject-specific technical curricula, all three points (instructional uses of technology, administrative uses of technology, and subject-specific uses of technology as a means of teaching) can be subsumed under my term education technology.
This leaves us with the Royal Society’s points 1 and 5. I shall leave point 5, the physical infrastructure of a school’s computer systems, on one side and consider point 1: ICT as a subject.
The Royal Society proposes that this should in turn be split into three strands:
- Computer Science
- Digital Literacy.
The main concern of the Royal Society is to introduce Computer Science to our schools as a stretching, academic discipline—and it has been this aspiration which has been dominating the review of the ICT curriculum. Beyond saying that I fully support the idea, I will also leave this to one side as being beyond the scope of this post.
The extraction of Computer Science as a hard, academic discipline leaves the messy job of clearing up all of the other bits of the old ICT curriculum. Covering “the rest” is left to the other two of the Royal Society’s categories: Digital Literacy and IT.
I believe that the Royal Society’s definition of IT (as a subject discipline) is particularly problematic. It says that IT consists in “the application of computer systems and the use of pre-existing software to meet user needs”. This definition does not make clear whether this is something that is taught, something that is done as a matter of course by other subject teachers (i.e. when they use a whiteboard to present a lesson on Geography), something that is done independently by students, or something that is done by the school technicians when they manage the school infrastructure. The Royal Society’s definition of IT appears to me to be just as problematic as the old definition of ICT ever was.
I shall offer my view of how to make sense of the Royal Society’s “IT” strand, once I have considered the main subject of this post, which is Digital Literacy.
Three definitions of “Digital Literacy”
We have seen three separate definitions of “Digital Literacy” in the current debate, each successive definition creating a wider scope, like the ripples spreading out on the surface of a pond. I shall start with the largest, outer ripple and work my way in.
The widest definition of DL: understanding the transformative effect of technology
The widest definition is given by the most enthusiastic advocates of ICT. According to this view, Digital Literacy is about understanding technology as a transformative force both in education and in society more generally. It is not enough to be able to use computers productively in school; you should be able to use computers to become a “21st century citizen”.
The clearest definition of this perspective is given by Dr Peter Twining, Director of the Vital and member of the committee which is compiling the new Programme of Study. On his EdFutures blog, he defines Digital Literacy as:the ability to operate effectively as a citizen in the 21st century. It covers the following areas: * Understanding the impact of new technologies on society, including the ways in which new technologies change disciplines (e.g. history, chemistry, English, etc) * Understanding the nature of digital identities and being able to manage your digital identities appropriately *Being able to interact safely in a digital world (encompassing e-safety, cyber-bullying, data security, etc); * Being able to locate, organize, understand, evaluate, analyze and (re)present information using digital technology (including using dynamic and procedural representations).
According to this account, it is not enough just to be able to use technology to improve teaching and learning: you need to understand that technology is changing what you ought to be learning as well.
It is a consequence of this proposition not only that ICT should be taught across curriculum but also that all other subjects need to change in order to reflect the impact of technology in modern society.
Those of us who are susceptible to wishful thinking tend to over-rate the likelihood of what we hope for will actually come about. Some people go one step further and seek to persuade other people that something is desirable by telling them that it is going to happen anyway, whether they like it or not—or even that it has happened already.
While it is undoubtedly true that technology is changing society in many ways, exactly how it is changing society is not necessarily clear. I have sat in countless conferences listening to speakers waxing lyrically about the “wisdom of crowds” – yet as I write, the use of social media is in the news for spreading false accusations of paedophilia against innocent victims. This seems to suggest a more traditional view of the “foolishness of crowds”:Rumour is a pipe
Blown by surmises, jealousies, conjectures,
And of so easy and so plain a stop
That the blunt monster with uncounted heads,
The still-discordant wavering multitude,
Can play upon it.
Laying aside the virtues of Twitter, Dr Twining’s proposition that technology fundamentally changes all other subjects is very far from self-evident. A word-processor may be a useful tool but it does nothing to change the nature of great poetry or confer the ability to produce it. A recent BBC Horizon programme featured a selection of the world’s top mathematicians and physicists, all sitting around in the state-of-the-art National Research Council in Canada, speculating on what came before the Big Bang. When asked to explain their cutting-edge theories, they turn to blackboard and chalk. And one reason that the Japanese are so far ahead of us in international comparisons of numeracy is that they use the abacus to achieve extraordinary feats of mental arithmetic, avoiding the calculator which has transformed (presumably to Dr Twining’s liking) our teaching of Maths in the UK.
Technology may be useful, it may influence the context in which we operate, and scientists in particular may rely on it to construct the experiments that enable them to collect evidence: but technology does not necessarily change the fundamentals of an academic discipline. Even when it comes to Computer Science itself, the Royal Society report argues that Computer Science “has longevity (most of the ideas and concepts that were current 50 or more years ago are still applicable today), and every core principle can be taught or illustrated without relying on the use of a specific technology”. Core academic principles do not change—and in comparison to the mastery of those principles, the skills required to tweet, blog and file-share count as trivia.
In respect of the “embedding” of ICT across the curriculum, Shut down or restart sounds a cautious note.The phrase ‘ICT across curriculum’ can mean two quite different things in a school context: a) Using information and communication technology to enhance learning in, say, history. b) Embedding the teaching of ICT skills in other curriculum subjects – e.g. Excel skills are learnt through subjects such as business studies and mathematics. These are not the same, but they are very frequently conflated. In our opinion, the former is a given, and is not the focus of this report. The latter is the approach taken through the ICT curriculum in Northern Ireland, and many international examples of this exist. The call for evidence and stakeholder meetings provoked a mixed response to this approach – some saw this as an efficient way of building the ICT curriculum into the school day, but others were highly sceptical of the idea that many different teachers throughout the school could between them have sufficient subject knowledge to avoid a tickbox approach. Naace notes that ICT as currently constructed can be delivered in a solely distributed way, but also cautions that there are many potential problems with this method and few examples of success.
“Embedded technology” and “cross-curriculum ICT” are confusing terms because they mean “mean two quite different things in a school context”, two things that “are very frequently conflated”: the teaching of subject-specific technology (such as weather stations in Geography or MIDI instruments in music (which the Royal Society regards as a given); or the teaching of technology across the curriculum (which the Royal Society cautions is likely to be impractical. The Royal Society implicitly agrees with me (see my post The dog that didn’t bark) that the use of the term “embedded” is appropriate to the teaching of technology but not to the use of technology in the classroom—and that the indiscriminate use of the term therefore confuses these two very different ways in which technology appears in our schools. In all of Dr Twining’s extensive advocacy of embedded technology on the web, I can find no rebuttal of the Royal Society’s position.
Once it has been agreed that the teaching of ICT across the curriculum is impractical, we are left with
- the teaching in different subjects of subject-specific technologies;
- the use of education technology in different subjects to improve learning.
In both of these cases, the application or teaching of technology should be driven by the subject concerned, and not by the advocates of ICT. This point of view appears to be put very clearly in the Explanatory Notes to the Draft ICT Programme of Study produced under the auspices of the BCS and RAEng:The extent and nature of the use of technology in other subjects should be driven exclusively by the needs of those subjects, and not by the needs of the ICT curriculum.
However, the force of this admirably clear statement is muddied by the sentence that follows:Nevertheless, it would be extraordinary for any subject to make no use of technology – which should be recognised in the statutory requirements for these subjects within the National Curriculum. The tension between these two consecutive sentences in the notes suggests radically different perspectives on the committee considering the PoS. If it is true that “the extent and nature of the use of technology in other subjects should be driven exclusively by the needs of those subjects and not by the needs of the ICT curriculum”, then it is not for a document which seeks to outline the ICT curriculum to tell other subjects what they should be teaching.
The middling definition of DL: using computers to improve learning
The middling definition focuses on the use of computer skills to improve learning. According to this definition, you need to be able to use these applications productively in your learning. This is the definition which seems to form the focus of the first draft of the Programme of Study, created under the auspices of the British Computer Society and the Royal Academy of Engineering.
At each key stage, the draft PoS provides a single bullet point which (although it is not stated explicitly) appears to address the need for Digital Literacy. They are:
At KS1Use software on a range of devices; create, manipulate and evaluate digital media in a range of formats for use by an audience with whom they are familiar; use the web as a tool for learning and research.
At KS2Select, use and combine a variety of software (including internet services) on a range of electronic devices to accomplish a given goal, including collecting, analysing, evaluating and presenting data and information; apply good design practice when creating digital products for a given audience; work collaboratively in digital media and manage small projects; use search engines effectively and appreciate how results are selected and ranked.
At KS3Work creatively on individual and team projects in a range of digital media; select, use and assemble multiple applications across a range of devices to achieve complex goals, including analysing data and meeting the needs of known users; create, reuse, revise and repurpose digital content with attention to design and audience.
There is nothing radical about any of these points—they could all have been lifted straight out of the ICT curriculum that anyone might have been likely to write over the last 10 years—and that is precisely the problem. They transfer to the “new” ICT curriculum all the failings of the old ICT curriculum, widely regarded as having been “too off-putting, too demotivating, too dull”.
I suggest that this approach has several problems.
The proposed PoS for Digital Literacy is not specific
Even though the document being prepared by the BCS and RAEng can only provide a top-level overview (having to fit on two sides of A4), there is no reason why it should not specify in some detail the key skills that need to be achieved at various stages.
In this respect, the proposed paragraphs on Digital Literacy contrast unfavourably with the paragraphs included in the same document for Computer Science. These require that students, at KS2:Use ‘if … then … else’ and loop structures in algorithms and programs; use variables and tables to store, retrieve and manipulate data; work with different forms of input, data representation and output;
and at KS3:Represent the relevant aspects of a problem as abstractions that can be described within a program, including a conceptual understanding of how data is represented and how instructions are processed within a computer system.
Unlike the PoS for computer science, the requirements for Digital Literacy do not specify what precisely students should be able to do. Nobody can assume that anyone will have been taught to use any particular type of software (as it will be the students who are given responsibility for selecting what sorts of software to use) and different schools are bound to have different interpretations of what is meant by “complex goals”. The only category of software that they are explicitly required to master is internet search engines.
At both KS2 and KS3, the PoS requires students to be able to “select” the right sort of software for a particular purpose. But it is only possible to make a selection from those options with which you are already familiar. Nothing in the PoS specifies how wide a vocabulary of software types and software applications the student ought to have, from which to make this selection.
The proposed PoS confuses the teaching of technology with its use
Instead of defining what students should know about digital technology, the PoS defines what students should use digital technology for. This makes the implicit assumption that if students are required to use technology for the right sort of ends, then they will automatically have to learn about the technology which provides the most effective means (given the current state of a rapidly changing technical landscape) of achieving those ends.
Broadly speaking, the “right sort of ends” are defined as the presentation of information in digital form, working collaboratively on creative projects. These are the processes that lie behind the currently popular model of Technology Enhanced Learning—the use of computers to enhance learning across the curriculum, supported by software that in general has not been developed specifically for education.
The problem with this formula is that assumptions are being made about how technology can best be used to enhance learning across the curriculum—and then these assumptions are being wired into the curricula, not only for ICT but also (because of the assumptions also being made about the need for embedded ICT) in the curricula of all other subjects. This is dangerous. Many prominent advocates of current Technology Enhanced Learning talk nonsense (see my post, Sir Ken Robinson and Scott Goodman’s guest post Ken Robinson Rebuttal ), refuse to debate their position with anyone who disagrees with them (see my post, The dog that didn’t bark), and fail to point to any substantive evidence that current approaches to Technology Enhanced Learning actually work.
The proposed PoS confuses ICT skills with subject-specific skills
There are many parts of the PoS which address non-technical skills. At KS2, students must “use…software…to accomplish a given goal”, which should include “evaluating…information”.
There is a section in Plato’s Gorgias in which Socrates challenges the eponymous orator to explain what he means when he says that “persuasion is the chief end of rhetoric” (rhetoric being the art which we would probably call “spin”). Socrates argues that the ability to persuade someone of the truth of a mathematical proposition is what maths is about; the ability to persuade someone of an historical truth is what history is about; and the ability to persuade someone of a scientific truth is what science is about. There is nothing left for which we need to use rhetoric as the means of persuasion. Socrates concludes (as have so many observers of modern politics) that the purpose of rhetoric is to deceive and not persuade anyone of the truth.
A similar argument can be applied to creation, evaluation and communication: the ability to evaluate statistical data (or create and express useful statistically valid conclusions) is what the subject of statistics is about; the ability to evaluate scientific information (or create and express valid scientific propositions) is what science is about; and the ability to create or evaluate a pot is what pottery is about. There is no such thing as a general ability to create or evaluate that can be acquired in isolation from these particular cases—and it is certainly not something that we have any evidence is delivered by the discredited ICT curriculum.
The proposed PoS assumes cross-curriculum delivery
It is presumably because the advocates of Technology Enhanced Learning are aware of the argument above that they argue that ICT in general (or Digital Literacy in particular) must be “embedded” across the curriculum. This argument runs into all the difficulties that have already been highlighted by the Royal Society, by this post and by The dog that didn’t bark.
The tightest definition of DL: using computers
The tightest definition of digital literacy is given by the Royal Society report as “The general ability to use computers”. A fuller explanation of what this means is that:Digital literacy should be understood to mean the basic skill or ability to use a computer confidently, safely and effectively, including: the ability to use office software such as word processors, email and presentation software, the ability to create and edit images, audio and video, and the ability to use a web browser and internet search engines. These are the skills that teachers of other subjects at secondary school should be able to assume that their pupils have, as an analogue of being able to read and write.
The Royal Society report makes clear that it does not regard Digital Literacy as anything very demanding. Most of these skills should have been taught by the end of KS3 at the latest.
The great merit of the Royal Society approach is that it is precise. Even in the short paragraph that it devotes to the subject, it lists the different types of software (word processors, email, presentation and image editing software) “that teachers of other subjects at secondary school should be able to assume that their pupils have, as an analogue of being able to read and write”. You would have though that when it came to producing a programme of study, detail would have been added to this definition. In fact, detail has been subtracted.
Sorting out the relationship between ends and means
My argument in January was that the term “ICT” confused technology as an end of education and technology as a means to education. Thanks partly to the Royal Society report, these two meanings are slowly separating out, like oil and water in a shaken bottle. But the process of separating what was previously conflated takes time and the current exercise shows that the overall picture is still confused.
Part of the problem is that, as argued in my post Aristotle’s Saddle-maker, ends and means are relative, not absolute terms, and they generally form chains with many links:
- we use technology in order to teach and learn more effectively;
- we teach and learn in order to acquire new knowledge and skills;
- we acquire new knowledge and skills in order to achieve certain goals.
The PoS ought to address the middle of these links in the teleological chain, specifying with some degree of precision what knowledge and skills our schools should teach. In its current draft, the wording of the PoS addresses the third link in the chain, requiring students to use whatever technology they think is appropriate in order to achieve certain “complex” goals. What these goals should be is not specified either, except that there is a strong implication that it should be to improve their own learning (looping back to the first step). In this way, the current PoS does everything except specify what students should know.
This does not mean that in specifying what we should know, no account should be given of why we should know it. As far as the teaching of Digital Literacy at school is concerned, I suggest that there are two main justifications:
- to enable students to learn more effectively at school;
- to equip students with the basic skills required in adult life.
With respect to the first goal, if we want to know what sort of digital literacies are required for better learning across the curriculum, then we should ask the teachers of those other subjects in which the digital literacy is going to be used.
As an ex-secondary school History teacher, I would answer that my main requirements would be that students should be able to:
- type with reasonable fluency;
- use a word processor, with particular emphasis on reviewing and redrafting documents;
- use an outliner or mind-mapping software to organise and structure an argument;
- use reputable online sources of reference;
- to have the general confidence to access subject-specific software packages, such as assessment software for the revision of basic facts.
From the same perspective of a teacher of History, I would place little importance on the use of:
- the internet as a primary source of information (as in “internet research”);
- presentation software, such as PowerPoint;
- image or video manipulation software;
- databases and spreadsheets.
My requirements would be poorly served by the PoS for Digital Literacy as currently proposed, which suggests the prioritisation of the second set of bullet points and not the first. It implies a great deal of time making videos and graphics, presenting and posting these creations online, rather than getting down to mastering the less glamorous business of handling text and writing essays.
Other History teachers might of course disagree with me, suggesting different priorities. But it is at least the History teachers (and Science and Maths and English and Music and Art teachers) who are the ones that should be asked.
Beyond using computers to enhance teaching and learning, students also need to be able to use computers to operate efficiently in adult life. Students therefore need to be taught about personal security and identity fraud, both in the context of financial transactions and social networking environments, copyright, defamation and other consequences of online activity. These issues could perhaps be covered, fairly simply, as an aspect of PSHE.
Where this leaves Information Technology
As suggested at the top of this post, I think that the Royal Society’s definition of IT as a third curriculum thread is confusing. This leaves the possibility that the term “IT” could still be used in a variety of ways:
- to refer to the “physical infrastructure of a school’s computer systems”, which is not a curriculum issue at all;
- to refer to what might loosely be called the “sociology of computers”—i.e. a study of the ways in which computers are changing our society;
- as a generic term, to a collection of more particular, often vocational courses, such as secretarial skills, business accounting, digital art, network management etc.
None of these three cases suggests that the term “IT” has a place in the compulsory, pre-GCSE curriculum.
Where this leaves “ICT”
Both the Royal Society and I proposed that we should get rid of the term “ICT”. This has not been possible because the term is specified by statute law and the DfE has better things to do than to introduce new primary legislation.
This is not significant. The term ICT can be preserved as a formal and abstract term that, when it comes to the practice of teaching, can be clearly disaggregated into its constituent parts: Computer Science, Digital Literacy, and some optional extras which I propose would be better covered by “IT Studies”, acting as a further umbrella term. What is required is not new primary legislation but a clear categorisation of curriculum content.
The current draft of the PoS does not achieve this, which should be one of its primary objectives. Having summarised at the beginning of the draft the tripartite division that it inherited from the Royal Society, no attempt is made to specify what curriculum content constitutes each of the three strands.
The way in which the current draft is structured therefore perpetuates exactly the sort of confusions from which the old ICT curriculum suffered. The PoS should be restructured to make explicit, not only how the three strands are defined, but of what curriculum content each of the three strands is composed.
This will leave “ICT” as prehensile survival of an earlier age, an umbrella term of the same type as “the arts”, “the humanities” or “the sciences”. It should keep its place in statute but should have little direct effect on the way that the curriculum is delivered.
The current reform of the ICT curriculum was initiated by the Royal Society, whose primary interest has been to promote an academically rigorous Computer Science. Neither the Royal Society, the British Computer Society nor Royal Academy of Engineering, appears to be very interested in the parts of ICT which are left once Computer Science has been extracted.
As a result, the BCS and RAEng are currently deferring to a group of people who have been identified as stakeholders in the old ICT curriculum. But the old ICT curriculum has been discredited and what is needed is a fresh start, not more of the same. By handing over influence to these groups, the BCS and RAEng are losing the tightly-defined account of Digital Literacy that was proposed by the Royal Society, drifting back to a the old model of ICT that is long on rhetoric but short on either substance or evidence that it makes any useful contribution to learning.
The two principal components of the technology curriculum should be Computer Science and Digital Literacy. Digital Literacy should focus on a clearly-defined set of skills “that teachers of other subjects at secondary school should be able to assume that their pupils have, as an analogue of being able to read and write”. What those skills should be should be established by consulting with teachers of other subjects – not through the campaigning of those who are already committed to the old notion of ICT.
- specify what prerequisite “digital literacies” they want students to bring to their classrooms;
- buy from the software industry the education technologies that they find useful (thereby driving innovation in the market);
- teach those subject-specific technologies that are part of their curriculum;
- use technology to teach their subject in whatever way that they think works.
And let the skills that are asked for in the first step be clearly specified under the Digital Literacy strand of the new ICT PoS.
|Scrapping “ICT”, argued that the term “ICT” was no longer useful and should be scrapped. I did not know at the time that the Royal Society had published a report 5 days earlier which came to the same conclusion.|
|Sir Ken Robinson is a rebuttal of one of the popular videos of Sir Ken Robinson, evangelist for a more creative approach to education.|
|Ken Robinson Rebuttal is a guest post written by Scott Goodman, rebutting another of Sir Ken’s videos.|
|Aristotle’s Saddlemaker makes the argument for education-specific software, based on a discussion of the relationship between ends and means found originally in Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics.|
|The dog that didn’t bark reviews the SchoolsTech discussion that occurred in the Spring of 2012, along the way questioning the doctrine of embedded ICT.|
|Peter Twining’s blog on the ICT curriculum argues for a wide definition of “digital literacy”, which he thinks should be embedded across the curriculum.|
|The draft Programme of Study, published by the BCS and the RAEng on 22 October 2012.|
|My response to the consultation focused on the draft PoS.|
|Home page, with a full listing of posts on this blog.|
 A programme for teacher training in ICT, run by the Open University and funded by the Department for Education. Vital is one of the invited stakeholders which have contributed to the draft Programme of Study, produced under the leadership of the British Computer Society and Royal Academy of Engineering.
 These four points are also offered by Dr Twining as a definition of a new term that he appears to have invented, “Digeracy”. The rationale for inventing such a new term was to use it to refer “to refer to those elements of ICT (the statutory subject) which are not part of Computer Science”. This seems to me to be a misconceived argument. There now seems to be a broad consensus that “ICT” is a poorly defined term, while “Computer Science” is a fairly well defined term. What is left behind by subtracting a well-defined set of concepts from a poorly defined set of concepts is another poorly defined set of concepts.
 William Shakespeare, Henry IV, Part 2, Act 1, Sc 1.
 “there’s a building in Canada that looks like a mathematical problem itself which is full of people whose job is to sit around pondering these questions. And that they still use blackboards and chalk there. “ http://www.guardian.co.uk/tv-and-radio/2010/oct/12/television-documentary
 I have argued against this terminology, both in comments on Embedding “ICT” and, more recently, in the main text of The dog that didn’t bark.
 “Shut down or restart?” (http://royalsociety.org/education/policy/computing-in-schools/report/) page 19.
 Ibid, page 43
 Ibid, page 5