ROMping to the bank

March 10, 1995

Is all this "interactive media" still a solution looking for a problem which merely drains funding resources? David Clark argues for a complete rethink on uses of information technology.

At a recent meeting of the American Association of Publishers in Washington, there was only one presentation involving any "new technology".

It was given by the information technology group of one of the more prominent of the management consultancies that are crowding like weeds into this latest hyper's paradise. The presenters could not get their computer to work; abandoning that, they turned to the backdrop video. They could not get the sound for the video to come up on the television: they tried to improvise a commentary but by then their presentation no longer carried conviction. Senior representatives from the major publishers again waited in vain for the promises of the new technology to be fulfilled.

From conversations with the presidents and chief executive officers of the main textbook publishers, it is quite clear that new technology is a nuisance. their close contact with the classroom has shown them that computers are a snare and delusion as far as academic progress is concerned, but the media hype has driven them to enter the market with CD-Rom products at great expense and with the prospect of losses, now compounded with the fear that a backlash is growing among teachers.

Implicit in the appeal to the new media for solutions is the acknowledgement that the ways in which we teach could be improved. That they can be improved by mechanical means is open to doubt.

The teachers themselves are the proper focus of any enquiry into ways in which the young can be prepared for the world. Who are they, what do they know, what are their working conditions, what is their support structure? Answers will throw more light on the problems facing young people than any amount of technobabble about knowledge-based systems in the classroom or the wonders of the Internet.

Has anybody asked the teachers if they want computers in their classrooms? Just watching the effect of the introduction of an "Interactive Learning Workstation" into a primary classroom is sufficient to show that in its present form new technology dis-empowers the teacher.

Insufficient thought has been given to the needs of the teacher and too much time and money has been spent on exploiting the abilities of the new technologies. Those needs and abilities do not match.

Is all this "interactive media" still a solution looking for a problem? Do I as a teacher want essays that are "cut and pasted" from some CD-Rom encyclopaedia? Do computers really aid the education process?

The time is more than ripe for a reappraisal of the headlong rush to computerise the classroom. Unfortunately, some of the basic tools required to undertake this reappraisal are hard to come by. Since 1984 the Government, first in the form of the Department for Trade and Industry and latterly the Department for Education has dished out Pounds 101 million at 1995 prices on projects involving interactive technologies in education. This total does not include any purely computer sales-orientated schemes such as the Microprocessors in Schools initiative or the funding for the purchase of laser disc or CD-Rom systems. Although the money was given on the understanding that reports would be written detailing the results and at least two of the projects had a formal evaluation component built in from the start, almost no publications are in the public domain.The recent publication of the evaluation study of the use of interactive media in schools is a step in the right direction; reports exist for all the other activities at the funding agencies but they have never been released.

The consequences have been unfortunate in that lessons have not been learned and good money thrown in ever-increasing quantities after bad: the current initiative for the higher education sector, the Teaching and Learning Technology Programme (TLTP), is burning Pounds 40 million, blindly repeating many of the mistakes of the past.

Just what is this new technology supposed to achieve in the classroom? At the crudest level, since the Government is spending the money it must believe that some savings to the total budget must result in the long run. Another point of view might be that new tools for industry, such as computers, might have a spin-off benefit in education, apart from the specific need to produce employees capable of using the tools of the trade. The evidence to support either point of view is hard to come by. There is much research on the use of technologies paid for by the likes of IBM, Apple and BT. These publications invariably seek to show that the project was a success (there were, of course, a few problems) and can we have some more lolly to carry on please. Careful, disinterested examinations of projects is in short supply, and those available are equivocal, not least because the projects themselves had the haziest education objectives. There are four domains in which the new interactive technologies have been applied to education: primary, secondary, tertiary and industrial. Each of these has received Government funding (all money normalised to 1995 value): l secondary in 1984-86, the Interactive Video in Schools (IVIS) projects (Pounds 8 million). A first tranche across the tertiary and industry sectors in 1987-89, (Pounds 22 million), and a joint further education and industry collaboration in 1987-89 - the Interactive Video in Industry and Further Education (IVIFE) projects (Pounds 4 million): l primary in 1991-93 with the Interactive Video and Associated Technologies in Schools (IVATS) project (Pounds 600,000). And, currently a second tranche for the tertiary sector, the TLTP (Pounds 4 million).

Before these initiatives the DTI paid for some early experiments and the creation and maintenance of the National Interactive Video centre (1984-89- Pounds million).

There have been other substantial commercially-funded initiatives, such as the (then) Nuclear Electricity Information Group investment in the University of Newcastle school of education to produce products for secondary education (Pounds 7 million), and the internal ventures by Rolls Royce, Renault, Ford Lloyds Bank, B & Q and many others.

Reliable costs for these projects are not available, since they are, in a popular euphemism for embarrassment, commercially sensitive. There is much valuable information to be obtained from products of all this expense: that this has proved impossible in practice is food for thought.

In secondary education in the United States, academic achievement of recent school-leavers is lower now than it was in 1969. In fact, in every year since 1969 it has been lower. This six-year trend can no longer be passed off as a "blip" and has galvanised the National Science Foundation into a serious re-evaluation of the manner and matter of high-school teaching. Curriculum issues have come to the fore, and the debates are reminiscent of those that have been raging within our education community. There, as here, answers are in short supply.

The way forward is to ensure that technology follows need, not the other way round. Interactive technology is by no means new. It is hard to see any advance on the work carried out in the late 1970s. Recently, indeed, things have moved backwards. The mindless dash to encode all information in digital form has made it far more difficult to manage the rapid delivery of high-fidelity moving pictures in teaching programmes.

The performance of the top-of-the-line CD-Rom systems, which are already too expensive to be installed in educationally-worthwhile numbers, is inferior in its image-related functions to LD-based systems of less than a third the price. Given the value of high-quality moving images in teaching, it is incomprehensible, that so much money has flowed into the preparation of inferior products.

It can only be that it is a matter of fashion. And where fashion rules, reason is on holiday. That is why a number of unscrupulous publishers are scrabbling round, gathering up "product" as they call it, bunging it on to a CD-Rom with an engaging title and marketing the junk for all their worth in the hope of a short-term killing before the "punters" wake up to the fact that they have been ripped off yet again.

"Say yes to everything'' was the memorable instruction that I received before going on the stand as a representative of a large company marketing computer-based products into education. It is not an easy task to evaluate the claims of manufacturers at the best of times but in the field of "multimedia" the number of deceits per metre cubed per second has now reached a level that is unacceptable, if not downright dangerous. Furthermore, as the cost of installation of such systems is high, the decision on what to buy has to be taken at a level where ignorance is likely to be total, decoupled from the chalkface and the technical expertise. Small wonder, then, that when it comes to be used, the expensive system does not deliver the goods and finds its way to the store-room or the audiovisual room of the library. That has been the history of "new technology" in teaching for the past two decades and this time it will be no different, except for the fact that we can ill-afford the money or the wasted time.

But it does not have to be like this. Great care was taken in the development of the National Curriculum to establish the contents, and, by implication, their importance and temporal requirements, of the subjects to be covered. As far as I know, no one expert in new technologies in teaching was invited to contribute to the decisions: it was an implicit assumption that it was known how the material would be covered.

This is unfortunate, as some depressing conclusions can be drawn from this failure. Either the possibility did not occur to those who set up the team, or it did occur and was dismissed as unimportant. In either case the implications for the use of the new media are severe.

If the received opinion in the highest circles of the civil services is that such devices represent "tampering at the margin"' then they must have another agenda to justify the spending which has taken place (a hint of this is that over half of the expenditure has come through the DTI). If they have hopes that their expenditure will have a profound effect on education, then their management and accountability leaves much to be desired, as the knowledge so expensively bought has not yet come to light.

New technology can make significant contributions to the efficiency of teachers. We need to marshall the data for that case, to put the need before the means, and to convince teachers that, far from being designed to replace them, these devices will increase their power to direct their students' thoughts along profitable and constructive lines.

David Clark is visiting professor at the University of Middlesex and research associate, Advanced Projects Office, University of Portsmouth.

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