“ICT” and “digital literacy” RIP

Still from the film "The premature burial"The term “Information and Communications Technology” (ICT) has referred to the curriculum subject taught in UK schools. As advocated on this blog, it is now being changed to “Computing”.

I laid out the reasons why the term “ICT” should be abolished in one of the earliest posts on this blog. The Royal Society made a similar argument at about the same time in its report “Shut down or restart?”. Yesterday, the Department for Education announced that it was initiating the the legislative process required to change “ICT” to “Computing”. It also suggested a surprising response to the debate over “digital literacy”—one that is equally welcome as far as I am concerned.

The DfE’s consultation report

I will not rehearse the arguments that I have already made elsewhere in this blog against the terms “ICT” and “Digital Literacy” as the latter term has been defined by the supporters of ICT.

The DfE document published yesterday responds to the answers given to only one question in the original consultation—the question on changing the name of the “ICT” curriculum to “Computing”. The purpose of this early response is to hasten the further consultative process that the Secretary of State is required to complete in order make such a name change. The DfE’s response to the rest of the consultation on the new National Curriculum (including the substance of the new Computing curriculum) will be published later.

Nevertheless, the current document gives some interesting information about the consultation, which attracted 2,855 responses. It lists key concerns, the first three of which are:

  • The lack of visibility of ICT/digital literacy in the draft programmes of study and an apparent over-emphasis on programming.
  • The importance of IT skills for employability and ensuring that pupils were able to use a variety of technologies and be digitally literate.
  • The need for basic ICT/digital literacy skills to be taught at primary level before programming could be introduced to pupils at secondary.

All three of these points were argued in Good lord! Where has the digital literacy gone? and I welcome the implicit recognition of their force. It will be interesting to see how this will be reflected by substantive updates to the curriculum.

What is equally interesting is the implication that the term “digital literacy” is itself going to be dropped in favour of “digital skills”. The report states that:

Royal Society report on computing in schools, Shut Down or Restart? divides the subject discipline at school-level into three distinct but interrelated sub-domains: (1) computer science (the rigorous academic discipline that covers algorithms, data structures, programming); (2) digital skills (the general ability to use computers confidently, effectively and safely); and (3) information technology (the design and application of digital systems to meet user needs for particular purposes).

This is incorrect: the Royal Society Report talked of “digital literacy” and not “digital skills”. The DfE report continues:

when [consultation respondents] cite ‘basic IT skills’, ‘basic ICT skills’ or ‘digital literacy’ it is probable that they are referring to “digital skills” content.

Dropping the term “digital literacy” in favour of “digital skills” now seems to me like a very obvious and simple solution to the problem that I highlighted in Good lord! Where’s the digital literacy gone? The term that had originally been clearly and simply defined by the Royal Society had subsequently been obfuscated by a lot of ideological nonsense introduced by the supporters of ICT. But it was not a solution that ever occurred to me when I wrote that article in an attempt to reclaim the term.

The title of this post is inspired by the reaction of Peter Twining, who used to direct the Open University’s Vital training programme and has been my sparring partner on this topic (at least I spar against Peter). Peter posted a piece yesterday called “ICT is dead – long live ICT”. “Uh huh”, I wanted to tell Peter, “I think you’ll find that ‘ICT’ is dead and buried”. But for some reason, I find that I cannot post a response on Peter’s blog so, having taken the precaution of saving my comment before clicking the Submit button, I reproduce it here.

Response to Peter Twining’s blog post

Peter, I agree with the importance of defining terms (I was arguing this back in January 2012), but not at all with the taxonomy that you propose. I also disagree with your last swipe at Gove, regarding unintended consequences. If you are talking about the clarification of definitions, this was very explicitly the point of the whole exercise that was started by “Shut down or restart?”—stuff about “damaged brand” is just PR speak for those who do not understand the details of the argument about definitions. If you are talking about adopting your definitions, I should wait a while before assuming that this is going to happen at all.

Digital literacy

“Digital Literacy” seems to have been replaced by “Digital skills”, precisely to avoid any implication that anyone is talking about the stuff you are promoting: “21st century skills”, “21st century citizenship” and all of that stuff. It is going to be about the feet-on-the-ground (or “very narrow” as you and NAACE have it) definitions proposed by the Royal Society.

Technology Enhanced Learning

“TEL” should be avoided for reasons I have already described. If you do not want to read the whole article, my central point is illustrated by the definition you propose. You talk only of the use of digital technology, even though the subject-specific technologies that we need to transform education do not generally exist. This has been the central reason why the whole Becta experiment failed and why the sort of training programme that you were delivering through Vital was always premature. We should use “education technology” instead, because it covers both development and use of such technologies.

Embedded technology

I disagree with your use of this term for three reasons.

  1. As already argued, we “embed” things when they have a different purpose to the surrounding environment (a reporter in an army unit, for example) but we do not embed things which serve the main purpose of the surrounding environment. We do not “embed” tables and chairs in classrooms and neither should we “embed” weather stations in Geography lessons or MIDI instruments in music lessons. I think you understand this really: the problem is not that you use the term “embed” incorrectly but that your justification hides your true purpose. You really want to introduce different aims into other subjects under the pretence that the subject has changed in ways that you understand better than native subject experts. Your use of this term therefore signals your desire to act the cuckoo, laying your agenda in everyone else’s nest.
  2. In my view, you have grossly over-stated the claim that technology is changing the nature of the rest of the curriculum. When you look at the substance of the argument that you have made, it boils down to the fact that the English curriculum should refer to “texts” rather than “books”. I completely agree with that point. But the fact that literature is delivered through a new medium does not change the essence of the subject one iota. Even Computer Science itself, according to its chief advocate the Royal Society “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”. Computers have not even changed the discipline of Computing and I see no evidence that they have changed the fundamentals of any other subject either.
  3. The term is redundant. We have never required an abstract noun to refer to IWBs, Bunson burners and poly-gyms – why do we need such a term now, other than to smuggle in your very contentious theory that all these subjects have been changed by technology?


If we do not need “embedded technology”, then neither do we need “ICT” as a new umbrella term. Even laying aside all the (so far unanswered) arguments that the Royal Society, the DfE and I have put against this term, its use in the context that you are suggesting would be highly misleading, considering that it has always been used up to now (by yourself and everyone else) to refer to the National Curriculum subject.

Conclusion to reply to Peter

So the taxonomy that I think we are heading towards is somewhat different to that which you suggest. I suggest the following:

  • Computing
    • Computer Science
    • IT
    • Digital skills
  • Education technology

As for the hardware and software—what you call “Digital technology”—I suspect that we will end up with a mish-mash of terms like “subject-specific technology”, “IT infrastructure”, “the network” etc. The danger, which I am not sure how to avoid, is that we use “IT” to refer both to the hardware and software being used, and on the other hand to the subject. For that reason, I think the use of “digital technology” is not a bad idea. But I am not convinced it will ever catch on. Nor do I think that the lack of a formal taxonomy in this respect will do much harm, mainly because “IT” as a curriculum subject is itself an umbrella term, which I suspect will be little used. In practice, people will be studying “digital art”, “digital games creation” (pace Ian Livingstone), “network administration”, “database architecture”, “web design” etc.

Conclusion to this post

That is the direction that I have always argued that we should be going in, and I very much welcome the fact that that is the direction in which we now seem to be headed. The terminology matters and still needs to be worked out, and we will all await with interest the announcement of substantive changes to the Computing Curriculum in line with the hints given by the DfE document published yesterday.

Clarifying the purpose of the computing curriculum will allow the community now to turn its attention to the other—and in my view more important—half of the equation: not what we should teach but how we should teach it. In other words, to education technology. And that’s progress.

But you can never be complacent. The image I have used to theme this post comes from a film called “The premature burial”. It looks like a real gripper—and it might contain a warning that we should always stay alert for the sound of scratching at the window.

4 thoughts on ““ICT” and “digital literacy” RIP

    • Peter,

      This is a threaded discussion here as well.

      I have copied my response to your blog (the trouble I was having before occurred when I gave an incorrect answer to your “Trojan mouse” riddle, which proved more difficult than I was expecting). I am very happy to discuss on Edfutures – though my main argument is contained within the four linked posts to which I refer in my reply – and these will lead you back to this blog.

      But wherever it happens, I would certainly welcome a serious discussion about what are certainly a series of very important issues. It seems to me that your group, in which I include most of NAACE, Bob Harrison, Merlin John and perhaps Stephen Heppell – doth protest way too much that its views have been ignored by the DfE – when you yourselves have until now deliberately avoided any substantive debate with the substantive criticisms of your position that I have articulated. This has at best been a serious oversight because anyone who fails to answer serious criticism is himself not to be taken seriously. As I have tried to tell you guys in the past, your attempt to boycott me (very explicit on Bob Harrison’s part, unspoken by the rest of you) has not damaged my case but it has certainly damaged yours. It is never too late to change so I would welcome us starting a serious conversation now.

      Although I am delighted to bin the discredited “ICT” as a term, in one respect I would agree you. If we are talking about the thing (technology’s place in education in all its forms), then the moment of abolition is almost certainly also a moment of rebirth. But what is being re-born will certainly not be the same as what is being abolished – and so a certain intellectual agility will be required on the part of individuals and organisations that wish to make the transition to the new order; and a willingness to get involved in the debate will be required of anyone who wants to have any influence on that new order.

      In his January 2012 speech, Michael Gove called for “a serious and intelligent conversation on how will will use technology to transform education”. The response of the community through the NAACE/ALT moderated discussion and SchoolsTech was a miserable affair (see https://edtechnow.net/2012/10/14/the-dog-that-didnt-bark/). The community should stop whining, take a good look at itself in the mirror and if it wants to start being taken seriously again, let us have a discussion about how the serious and constructive debate that Michael Gove called for can now occur.

      I suspect that the Battle of the National Curriculum is over – but the more important battle about education technology (TEL if you must), including the delivery of the Computing curriculum, is about to begin.


      • Thanks for responding to my bliki post on the discussion page. I have in turn responded to the points you make – see http://edfutures.net/Talk:PeterT%27s_bliki#Let_us_hope_that_.22ICT.22_is_dead_and_buried_204

        I have to say that I found some of your comments here (in contrast to your original comments on my bliki) quite offensive. To my knowledge I have never refused to engage in constructive discussion about this or any other issue. I have engaged actively in the debate about ‘ICT’ and the curriculum as is evidenced by my twitter stream, bliki, membership of the original BCS/RAEng drafting group, and many discussions with colleagues from BCS/CAS, the DfE, Naace, ITTE, and pretty much anyone else who has every raised it with me.

        I trust that in our discussion in EdFutures.net we can remain professional and focussed on trying reach a solution to the problem that I think we are both agree upon – ensuring that we have clear definitions of key terms to help us avoid mis-communication within our field …

        • Peter,

          It was not my intention to cause unnecessary offense, I regret any misunderstanding that might have occurred, and I welcome the discussion we are now having.

          However, let me explain the background to my comments – because one person’s offense is caused by another person’s frustration. As far as you personally are concerned, you commented on one of my first posts on this blog (Scrapping “ICT”) but did not pursue the conversation, have only made only cursory responses to my occasional comments on EdFutures, have not responded to comments made elsewhere (http://www.agent4change.net/policy/curriculum/1822-government-hands-ict-curriculum-over-to-industry.html), and have not responded to my posts on this blog, which have criticised the postition you have taken on e.g. “embedded technology” and “twenty-first century skills” (https://edtechnow.net/2012/11/17/digital-literacy-and-the-new-ict-curriculum/ and face-to-face events such as at Policy Exchange), even though I informed you of the articles. You did not participate in the SchoolsTech discussion – to which I made extensive contributions critical of a position that you have supported – but were clearly aware of the discussion, which you deliberately decided not to participate in and for which you were involved in the write-up. I was not invited to the BCS/RAEng drafting group. So from my perspective, you have formed part of a clique along with NAACE, Bob Harrison, ITTE, Merlin John, re-enforcing each other’s orthodoxies and not responding to those outside the charmed circle who have wished to criticise it. One of your collaborators, Bob Harrison, explicitly refuses to debate with me or to correct himself when he makes demonstrably false statements (see http://www.agent4change.net/policy/curriculum/1830-swap-the-e-bacc-for-a-t-bacc-says-stephen-heppell.html and http://www.computing.co.uk, site – down this morning but I will post the link when I can). the same for Doug Belshaw, by private email, who declined the opportunity to respond to my criticisms of his position at https://edtechnow.net/2013/03/23/good_lord/). I hope that you will understand my sense of frustration – I put it mildly – with which I view those who have continued to promote a particular perspective while ignoring substantive and radical criticisms of that position, and at the same time continually promote themselves as the experts to whom others should defer.

          I am very willing to accept that on your part, this has not been deliberate – one of the problems with online discussions is that there are simply too many links to follow and papers to read. The fact that you are offended suggests that we share the same sense of values in these matters.

          The key point is that I very much welcome the conversation that we now have the opportunity to have – and I think that conversation will be all the more fruitful for the fact that we may have somewhat different perspectives on the problem.

          For the time being, this is a meta-conversation. I am posting substantive replies on your blog, though the trail may lead back to other articles that I have posted here.


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