Saturday, 20 November 1999

A Children's ICT Charter

Ages ago, for a Times Educational Supplement (TES) keynote at the 2000 BETT Show in London's Olympia, I proposed that we create a Children's Charter as a way of ensuring that they get a fair deal in their learning when ICT is part of the equation.

People keep asking for it again, so it must have left some kind of impression.. so here is the meat of it, again....

The pioneering Microelectronics Education Programme has just passed the 20th anniversary of it inception. MEP was active from November 1980 to March 1986 and under its director Richard Fothergill was responsible for the development of high quality curriculum materials, software and in-service training for teachers. The Labour government had actually planned to start the scheme in 1979 but lost the election and the plans were put on ice until '82.

20 years on, much of the anticipated impact of the vision from that pioneering project remains tantalisingly elusive, yet the children who started primary school as Fothergill took up his post are now in their mid twenties with a full school career with perhaps a university degree and the beginnings of a career behind them. The education system seems to have been remarkably patient as a score of years have tumbled past. Each year a scapegoat was found to explain the lack of progress: we needed more computers than one Spectrum for a class of children, we needed better software, we needed better staff development, we needed meta data to organise our content, we needed broader band connectivity, we needed.... so many excuses but the years have rushed by and so many children have missed out on the opportunities to enjoy the seductive, delightful, engaging learning environment that we know computers help to offer. Looking back on the optimism of those 1980 visions it seems incredible that in 2001 some school children will still be stuck typing up best copy of their handwritten work on-screen or using the computer as a testing machine, drilling rather than thrilling. They deserve far better and in some but not all schools they get it.

Perhaps it's time to stop the excuses and start from a model of entitlement for all children that serves as a litmus test for our school curriculum and organisation. This set of entitlements might be expressed as a Children's eCharter so that school children in the next 20 years might see clearly where the education system had delivered and where it had prevaricated. What might such a Children's eCharter include? Obviously there is need for a national debate but here are nine top nominees for inclusion, to start that debate:

• Children might expect to be offered progression and continuity for the many and diverse ICT activities they have collected on their way through primary and secondary school. This should not be translated into a soul destroying attempt to reduce experiences to the least set of common capabilities ("I'm sure you do have you own website Alison but not everyone in this room is as lucky so we will work at this cut and paste exercise until we are all starting from a level playing field")

• Children might expect that the new "cool" things they discover that they can do with computers would be allowed a place in the curriculum, but only when their teachers can show that "new" is "better". This simple entitlement carries some substantial hand baggage with it: teachers will need to be better valued as action researchers, the sterile search for "learning productivity" (faster or cheaper learning) will need to take second place to a search for creativity and we will need to embrace the uncertainty that will result.

• Children might expect that computers would be used as a tool to extend their learning opportunities rather than as a machine to test learning achieved away from those computers. Learning tools not testing machines. They might further expect that examinations would allow them to harness and show the skills and techniques that they have developed with computers. After 20 years of word processing it probably isn't unreasonable to expect that they might be allowed to word process in the examination room, but there is far more to ICT than word processing in the 21st century and the exam boards need urgently to awaken from their slumbers and stop penalising children for being ICT capable.

• Children might expect a broader definition of literacy that recognises the media rich world they live in, and will work in. They might be supported, where resources allow, in their creative work with new media: sound, video, web pages and more. With governments all around the world (and perhaps especially in the Pacific rim) embracing creativity and the computer's contribution to it this is also a key economic entitlement that our future national income will depend on.

• Children might expect that their personal choice of information and communication technology would be respected. The history of education's relationship with new technologies is littered with imposition, confiscation or standardisation. Many teachers are of a generation that were banned from using a ballpoint pen ("it will ruin your handwriting"). Today's students find their mobile phones or PDAs banned whilst the policy on personal laptops in school is usually muddled and rarely starts from an entitlement debate. Some universities expect students to abandon the familiar computer that got them through A levels computers and buy something "more suitable"; how arrogant.

• Children might expect that work they do outside of school would enjoy an audience inside school. This was hard before, but suddenly, as they used to say on TV, we have the technology. The entitlement here is for children's work outside school to be valued, accredited even, and offered some progression. All teachers will tell the story of the child they taught that unexpectedly turned out to be an expert on something (badgers, bookies odds, brass rubbing). The entitlement here is to reduce the "unexpectedly" bit, now that we can.

• Children might expect software that is built on an understanding of learning rather than a model of business practice. Businesses need finished documents, learning needs to record processes and an office word processing or administration suite is not ideal for delivering learning outcomes. MEP authored and sponsored the development of some ground breaking software and gave it away to learners; that public investment in public goods is needed again.

• Children might expect that, now we have the means, their work from previous years might still be on tap somewhere. One great sadness for many children is losing the record they had of their "brilliant Viking Project" and not being able to show it to their new teachers. This is especially galling when the new teacher insists on doing the same work all over again which is neither the teacher nor the students fault. It is a communication problem. We could be braver yet and suggest that children might be able to re-present revised versions of their previous work, building on past successes rather than starting with a clean sheet every year. After all, this is what so many companies do.

• And finally children might expect a rather less naive view of what equity means. Government rhetoric sees the information have nots as those without computers, or maybe those without internet access but it is more complex that that: an internet access (like ADSL) which "delivers" information to you but offers little return bandwidth for you to "upload" a contribution disenfranchises a student as effectively as refusing to hear their contributions in class. ICT is information COMMUNICATION technology and the entitlement to communicate, rather than just receive, is central to social equity and to learning.

What is interesting about this list is that these are common sense entitlements that teachers have been pointing out for some years. The big change now however is that an economic imperative is pushing them to the fore. Without these entitlements the children that graduate from our schools will find themselves in a low wage, low value economy, despite all our investment in ICT.

They deserve better.

© Stephen Heppell 1999