Do computers solve education problems?

The New York Times this week has been running articles examining the effectiveness of what we would call e-learning in US schools. In a nutshell, they have found little or no evidence that it boosts students’ grades, despite a widespread...

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The New York Times this week has been running articles examining the effectiveness of what we would call e-learning in US schools. In a nutshell, they have found little or no evidence that it boosts students’ grades, despite a widespread belief by schools that it does.

Schools it appears invest in expensive digital learning aids in the hope that they just might deliver what is so badly desired. Nicholas Carr, the Rough Type blogger, reflects on the e-learning story in the Times, but adds a fascinating quote from Steve Jobs in which the man most responsible for promoting computers in schools laments his folly of having pinned too much hope on them.

With the benefit of hindsight it is simply not clear how technology could have revolutionised education, and it seems foolish now that we were so confident that it would. Worse, it is clear that a lot of money spent on technology has not benefited students in any way. 

So far so good, yet another post from me ‘dissing’ school ICT, this time with even more deadly ammo.

Despite appearances, I do not have even remotely a negative attitude to ICT in school. Past failures do not mean that technology will not be of great future benefit to education.

What on earth should we do? ICT has not delivered in schools despite having had such promise of doing so, but that promise remains.

Steve Jobs would I am sure advise us to keep faith with technology. The next ‘big thing’ is not evident before it becomes the next big thing. Risks must be taken, projects will fail, money will inevitably appear ‘wasted’. I know for a fact Google subscribes to this philosophy, Wave should prove that.

Okay, it is hard to be so sanguine after spectacular failures such as the NHS IT debacle, but in no way are schools in that same category.

No, educational ICT has not ‘failed’... that would be an overstatement but it has been oversold. Overselling has characterised so many areas of life in the first decade of the twenty first century. Money was easy and models of business grew around mad products which just a few years later look ludicrously unsustainable; education was just one victim this time.

As a result most schools today have ICT models with high support overheads, in which they own their computers, pay twice for software and use high power consumption hardware. Amazingly it was once possible to tolerate this silly model on the assumption that it was justified. Justified because it gave students ‘essential’ workplace skills and clearly enhanced learning.

Today we know that computers in schools have failed to raise attainment and worse, ten years of ‘basic office skills’ training  has accompanied unprecedented levels of youth unemployment. So, so much for preparing a generation for the future. The old model is dead.

All that is left are tunnels with lights at the end.

Would you now back an expensive e-learning solution with lot of proprietary lock-ins to make your kids learn better? No, of course you would not. Would you invest in huge ICT suites supplied to an outsourcing company that restricted your options? No, of course you wouldn't.

On the other hand would you now give a low cost low maintenance computer with free software idea a punt? You probably would.

So there is your light at the end of the tunnel. Don’t sit there inert and depressed, buy new ideas, give them a go. Spend your money on low power consumption commodity hardware running free software. Don’t worry what it is, it could be a netbook, or an ebook, or whatever.

I think they call it spread-betting in the city.