Saturday, June 25, 2005

ICT and the curriculum

I posted the following to the Victorian IT lists as part of a discussion about the integration of ICT (Information and Communication Technology) into the curriculum. These integration efforts look good on paper but have led to IT lessons taught by specialist IT teachers being removed from the curriculum. What follows is the text of my original post punctuated with various new thoughts which add some more detail and clarification.

I think the problem with ICT in the curriculum is more dramatic and conceptual than the "interdisciplinary nature" of ICT.

Software is a medium for storing / transforming knowledge - there have only been a few such mediums in human history: machines, books, DNA, stuff like that. Software is the latest and arguably the fastest, most efficient, most flexible, evocative etc. yet.

update: This is argued in an article by Philip Armour: Of Zeppelins and Jet Planes (sorry, can't find the link). He says:
Software is not a product. It is a medium in which we store knowledge. Historically there have been 5 such media: DNA, Brains, Hardware, Books, Software.
ICT, for want of a better descriptor, cannot just be added onto the existing curriculum or integrated with it because software - the whole phenomenon of "being digital" - represents a brand new way of doing everything.

update: Being Digital is the name of a book by Nicholas Negroponte. The link is to an on line version.

At this stage only the enthusiasts "get it" and they are the people found here, on ICT lists. They are a minority in schools but will carry the message into schools as best they can. Our numbers will grow, there is no doubt about that.

update: There is probably more to it than being on a list but that's a good start

In the meantime, School (Capital S) will try to adapt and constrain the computer to make it fit the existing curriculum through sheer inertia, silly buggers and other means. Nothing new there.

update: read Alan Kay, Seymour Papert, Brian Harvey - ask me for more detail if you want it

No solution is adequate because we are in the middle of a paradigm shift but the best available solution for government would be to give the ICT enthusiasts as much power and encouragement as possible. Sooner or later it will happen, in the meantime the policy from the hierarchy could make a big difference but I don't think the hierarchy "gets it" either.

Maybe in India and China the hierarchy does get it, they seem to be powering along while the West is scratching it's head wondering why.

update: What I really mean is that despite the human rights abuses and extreme poverty found in those two countries they are taking education in maths, science and IT seriously and going places because of that. Asians win all the International Maths competitions these days. Should we put that down to genetic inferiority or some sort of soft culture / mathophobia in white western countries?


Blogger Bill Kerr said...

I received this email, from km, in response to the above 'ICT and the curriculum' blog. She is saying that I didn't develop my argument very carefully and jumped around between issues which are related but it needs to be spelt out more clearly than I managed. I agree with the criticism ...

I probably would have some disagreement with what you wrote in your blog if I explored it more deeply. In fact I think its not really a matter of "probably", I already do have points of disagreement - or perhaps more correctly, points where I would say that you've confused issues, or run them together thereby undermining your position.

I'm not convinced that what you say about software as a medium (comparing it to brains and DNA) justifies your conclusion that "IT enthusisats" should be given "as much power and encouragement as possible". Or putting it slightly differently - I do pretty much agree with the analogy between software and DNA etc but don;t think it necessarily leads where you think it does in terms of what should be happening in schools.

This doesn't mean that I support the idea of an integrated curriculum ... there are probably other very good reasons for opposing that idea, but I don't think it's a bad idea because people in IT "get it" and should therefore be entitled to sweep all before them.

Brains and DNA have been around longer than we have ...and language, books etc are more recent but still old. Nearly everyone uses these things - their brains, language etc without understanding how they work. Schools were invented to create mass literacy, numeracy etc and the computer revolution has necessitated that schools start teaching students to be competent with computers. Only a few students will go beyond being computer users and get into discovering what makes them tick. (either in the deeper philosophical sense or even as software engineers etc etc). Although I entirely agree with you about the deep similarity between computers, DNA, brains - how they all reveal in the most startling way how complexity emerges from absolute simplicity (1s and 0s, I don't think that this is an argument either against or for the integrated curriculum idea.

I think that what's going on in India and China is different yet again. Here it's a matter of development, maybe we could call it the "developmental imperative" - there's a psychology of it - people value education but probably don't actually value "learning" (in the way we do). They just want to get ahead and they see education as the key - as the most certain way to rise up from the bottom. So they study hard and their work ethic is stronger.

But I don't really think it's right to say that this means that in India and China the hierarchy "gets it" in some deep type of way. You are right to say that there's a lot of head scratching going on in the developed world - but I think its more to do with a lack of understanding of globalization , free-markets, all that is solid melts into air. It takes them by surprise, they don't have any real conception of how things will change as globalization becomes more and more complete. It's easier for the up and coming people (like those in India) to power ahead toward the goals that are beckoning them, than for those who have up till now been way ahead of their nearest competotors to work out how to deal with the fact that these competitors have suddenly surged ahead while at the same time the terrain of the race has become vastly different. The terrain is full of IT ofcourse - but that reality doesn't lead directly to an argument for or against an integrated curriculum.

You could argue that in order to keep up our schools willl need to start churning out many more highly competent IT students and that an integrated curriculum won't achieve this. I'd see this as a good argument. But I don't think it has any connection to those in authority understanding very much about software as a medium and its deep connection to other media such as DNA (and neither IT teachers or most of the competent IT students won't have this more philosophical understanding either).

( Most "Ordinary people" will go on being users and hopefully developing high levels of practical know-how. These might be the ones who would beneifit from a more integrated curriculum.)

In a non-capitalist education system more people would "get it"...... I suppsoe eventually we might not talk so much about 'education' because people would be excited by learning and the education woukd take care of itself .... a dash of utopianism is a good way to finish off, I guess.

Well those are my thoughts - and they took a while (quite a while!) for me to write up. I hope they make some sense to you and you don't feel that I'm being negative about what you wrote. My main point really is that what you wrote seems to confuse a number of different issues (all of them interesting and important). I suppose I'm saying that I think you wrote about them before properly digesting them. As you said in this morning's message, having a blog is a good way to get your thoughts down. But I think that "getting them down" is usually a crucial part of the thinking process rather than it's conclusion - well it is for me. Almost always when I write something I end up with new thoughts that probably would not have occurred to me if I hadn't been writing - I often see serious flaws or gaps in my knowledge during the writing process as well (that's the hardest part) and why I find writing quite painful sometimes.... in that sense its not a matter of "getting my thoughts down" - definitely not a process akin to backing-up or downloading my thoughts - but a component part of my own thinking process. Its very rare for me to be able to just transfer my 'thoughts' from my brain to a piece of paper or a word processor.

7:46 PM  

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