Wild erratic fancy?
The following article is an abridged version of the author’s paper 'Wild Erratic Fancy' delivered to the 2006 Curriculum Corporation conference, A vision splendid – ICT: research, pedagogy, implementation for schools. A longer version of the paper will appear in Synergy, Volume 5, No. 1, 2007.
In this paper I consider three things; an Australian educator’s vision splendid in the context of Banjo Paterson’s poem, Clancy of the Overflow, from which that phrase derives; the last decade’s ICT in schools policy achievement in light of that vision; and the next steps we need to take towards our vision splendid.
Paterson’s poem describes a contrast between humdrum routine and an ideal ‘other’; between the foetid air and gritty of the dusty dirty city and a vision splendid of sunlit plains extended. It is easy for educators to be drawn into this contrast, and settle into the daily routines of paperwork and compromise, while comforting ourselves that a better world exists elsewhere. But a vision founded on such a contrast is impotent; Paterson’s vision splendid is no more than a pipe dream. We need to do more than live in the humdrum, wistfully dreaming of what might have been.
An Educator’s Vision Splendid
Education is not the mechanism for maintaining things as they are, but the driver of new solutions. As educators, we see the world of infinite possibilities, stretching beyond the horizon of the sunlit plains extended, and our vision is to connect the child to these possibilities. Between the child and infinite possibility is the space in which educators ply their trade.We are sceptics, trained to check the evidence, but we are open to the possible. We know there is more to be known, and we hope our students will surpass our own knowledge and capability. How can we not, therefore, be committed to technology? More particularly, in a business grounded in knowledge and communication, information and communications technologies are not optional.
I think our community shares this view of education, and the vision for greater understanding and ever-increasing possibilities. Not many sections of our society see the picture as broadly as we do. That need not be a problem, provided educators are fully engaged in the debates and are providing their expertise and leadership.
In the policy arena, the application of ICT to education has largely been associated with the building of information or knowledge economies. As educators, we may prefer to broaden the rationale for ICTs beyond the economy and human resource development. Yet it is in this context that education ministers in Australia and New Zealand have worked together over the last decade to stimulate educational change using ICT.
Ministers published an overarching directional document, Learning in an Online World, in 2000. In it, they agreed that in order to support a society based around an information economy, education would need to develop new infrastructure, people capacity, digital content, policies and regulations. Further documents from the Ministers’ ICT in Schools Taskforce, recording further agreements on emerging ICT-related issues, are publicly available, and many are in use in schools, systems and sectors.
The Ministers’ jointly funded flagship initiative, The Learning Federation, focused on the development of digital content. Content development was intended to act as a catalyst for change in other areas, by creating new needs and opportunities, and exposing areas that wouldn’t work in the new, digital environment. The initiative structured ministerial collaboration around the core issues underpinning ICT use: interoperability, standards, IP sharing, indexing and searching, and curriculum consistency, while opening new possibilities in curriculum design and concept development.
It has been a risky, rocky road, but it has paid dividends. The initiative has enabled systems and sectors to identify common needs and differences, while maintaining their autonomy. The Learning Federation’s collective nature has mitigated the risk for individual jurisdictions associated with leading edge R&D, and the massive changes likely to spring from serious ICT application. There is strong support for The Learning Federation content from the students, teachers and parents using it, and early evidence of educational efficacy. Results of its evaluations will continue to be published over the next three years of its third phase.
The Learning Federation has also fulfilled its aim to expose areas of need, in learning management software, teacher capacity building and better bandwidth provision. The provision of infrastructure – bandwidth, networks and equipment – has largely remained the responsibility of states, territories and sectors. Although some collective work has been undertaken with large supply companies, Australia has not followed the USA’s example of requiring telecommunications companies to provide an ‘e-rate’ to schools, nor strategies of other countries to improve bandwidth. As a result, there are wide variations in infrastructure levels across Australia.
Building teachers’ ICT capacity has also been a responsibility of individual states, territories and jurisdictions. Requirements for teachers to undertake ICT-related professional development vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, and expectations rarely stretch beyond general program competence. While there are many proficient teachers, proficiency is far from universal. The establishment of Teaching Australia holds out promise that collaborative and nationally consistent work might be achievable in this area.
Many schools now embed ICT in practice. Teachers are using software packages in all subject areas, for every aspect of learning, including web-quests, gaming technologies, discussion groups, pod casting, wikis, blogs and many other applications. Schools are beginning to use digital content, many to great advantage. We have data management systems providing more accurate, timely and relevant information to teachers, parents, principals and schools.
For some teachers and schools, however, these are peripheral activities involving take-it-or-leave-it tools. For one reason or another, many teachers have not yet found time to embrace new possibilities. In spite of our achievements, we are at risk of relegating the use of ICT to enhance student learning to a vision splendid on Paterson’s terms rather than on educators’ terms – a good idea for someone else rather than part of our professional repertoire.
We need to address two issues. First, we have exposed some deep reluctance in many educators, whether in schools, universities or systems, to move towards the possible. Many are secure within their habitual environment, even though they see that environment as impoverished. There are insufficient incentives or mandates for change in a profession with a deeply entrenched culture of resistance.
Furthermore, although we are procuring content collaboratively and nationally and delivering it electronically to jurisdictions, the ‘last leg’ of delivery is a state and territory or sector responsibility. Solutions for distribution and access vary considerably across the country, and we could not say we have the bandwidth or the networks to reach, reliably and seamlessly, every student. We have work-arounds in many places, but still fall short of our vision. No one, however, is denying the need or the benefits of finding a solution.
An Australian and New Zealand report card would say we have made progress. We can point to some very good practice in ICT integration into teaching and learning, and into the organisation of schooling. We understand the necessity of connectivity, support and ubiquitous infrastructure. We know we can improve student motivation and concentration through the application of ICTs, and evidence is building for improved and accelerated learning. While it is important to acknowledge the continuing frustrations and limitations, we will solve those problems. The issue now is whether we apply what we have learnt to change from a cottage industry into a knowledge industry.
My Wild Erratic Fancy
From the stance of 2006, our break-through work of the last ten years appears two-dimensional. We now need a third, interconnecting dimension. The next set of gains will come from networks that link the knowledge and learning of teachers, students and others, activating horizontal collaboration to create value that did not exist before.
Many significant opportunities exist both on the administrative and curriculum side of schooling. Not only could we create, for example, a record of a student from enrolment to the end of life-long learning, but we could also build cumulative records of teacher understanding in relation to individual students or learning processes. We could automate links to health, vocational or other services to improve delivery and free teachers to focus on student learning. We could reduce the boundaries between home, school and after-school activities, or between public and private schooling. If content procurement, once the preserve of each state education system, can be more effectively managed through coalition, what other functions might be achieved this way?
The next steps in educational improvement through ICT are not bureaucratic but entrepreneurial. It is a future in which flexible, skilled teachers and small groups of service providers will have an advantage, and the opportunity to operate in creative ways. Those who can identify a need and design programs and services for one child, or a group of children, not necessarily geographically linked, will be in demand. Schooling systems might use their capacity to advantage, but they may also prove too rigid to adapt quickly enough. The advantage might yet go to the small, even to the individual, and will undoubtedly create new models and new services.
As educators, we do not have to choose between the humdrum of the dusty dirty city and the splendour of the sunlit plains. Our students are open to the digital world, with or without us, and their demand will, and should, contribute to educational change. Whether as individuals, as a profession, an education system or a sector, we now need to use, adapt and challenge ICT to advance our core professional task – to help each student discover and negotiate the infinite possibilities before them.
Subject HeadingsComputers in society
Information and Communications Technology (ICT)