Infrastructure > Devices

Driving IT creativity in the classroom

Charlotte Jee Published 10 December 2012

Charlotte Jee speaks to former Education Secretary Estelle Morris on unlocking young people's potential through IT


As someone who worked as a teacher for her entire pre-politics career, starting in a secondary school in the mid 1970s, education is a subject Estelle Morris knows particularly well.

Since standing down as an MP in 2005, Morris has carved out something of a niche for herself. As patron, and previously chair, of the e-Learning Foundation, a charity that works to reduce the effect of the 'digital divide' (inequality of access to IT) on young people, she has a unique understanding of the interaction between education and IT.

And of course, having served a brief stint as Secretary of State for Education and Skills under Tony Blair, Morris can also see the bigger picture regarding how the teaching of IT fits into the economy as a whole. She still actively takes part in legislation in her current guise as Baroness Morris of Yardley, having been made a life peer of the House of Lords in 2005.

Regarding her current role as patron of the e-Learning Foundation, Morris explains that the charity was set up in 2001 "because a lot of kids didn't have computers. Now, to quite an extent, that has changed.

"One thing that has developed over time- and this is true of government as a whole- is getting equipment in place. I think we [the e-Learning Foundation] have made tremendous progress in terms of hardware. Almost all children now have access to IT technology. That said, we've still not achieved all we want to achieve."

As an example of her work, Morris points to a recently-launched nationwide competition called the 'Art of Wi-Fi', whereby students are invited to submit digital designs created on smartphones, tablets and computers powered by wireless networks, for the chance to win their school £10,000.

Morris is among a panel of judges tasked with assessing the entries, which will be uploaded to a competition microsite with the aim of creating Britain's largest virtual children's art exhibition. The winners will be announced in October 2013, with the winning pieces to be displayed at the Saatchi Gallery in London.

Where the e-Learning Foundation fits into this agenda, Morris explains, is that "our argument is now all about connectivity- broadband and so on- which is what you need if you already have the hardware in place. It's all very well having the hardware, it's about how you want to use it".

"There's a bit of the education system that never asked itself the question of how hardware can be best used. It was so focused on getting equipment in place that it never properly considered its potential. I'm not too critical of that though, it's just the way it was", she adds.

Regarding the government's decision to include computer programming as part of the curriculum, Morris says, "that's absolutely right. It's a logical next step. If you look at this ['Art of Wi-Fi'] competition, I think it's playing to that.

"It's asking kids to use computers, develop their own ideas, be creative and invent things. It's not just that the computer can 'be a better biro' anymore, it's about using hardware, connectivity and so on. It's about unleashing talent and creativity and getting kids to be designers of content. That all plays into this present agenda."

On the government's decision to scrap Labour's Building Schools for the Future (BSF) programme, of which ICT was a fundamental part, Morris says, "I don't want to be too critical. The main point here is that it would be incredible if anyone built a school now that didn't have IT needs at its centre. If it were just an afterthought, that would be terrible. One of the key reasons it was such an important part of BSF was that we wanted technology to be a significant part of what a school looks like".

"You can ask important questions, like 'do you need computer suites?', but it goes beyond that. If you look at the administration of schools- how we register the kids, how we operate free school meals, etcetera, these can all be transformed through IT."

When asked how IT might be included in Labour's manifesto for the 2015 general election, Morris said, "The trouble with IT is that we're always running to catch up with ourselves. The policy process is very slow. By the time we've made a policy, technology has changed. What we've got to do as the Labour party is acknowledge that we need to be flexible.

"There's certain strands we need to adopt and I hope that Stephen Twigg [Labour's Shadow Secretary of State for Education] will. Looking at the IT industry, it's a whole new development area for children's jobs. Any confident, successful economy of the future will be built on the creativity of the work force. And creativity is not the same as being IT literate- we need to get past just 'IT literate'.

"As a nation I'm not sure we fully understand what creativity means, and that's why I'm quite critical of the English Baccalaureate. Creativity in terms of art, dance, and so on, is important, but so is creativity online and in IT. That's the sort of thing I hope to be displayed in the entrances for this [Art of Wi-Fi] competition. IT is still quite a new area and we've got to be the best in the world at it, for the sake of our economy."

"We also need think about the impact IT will have on the way we teach. The kids born now will go to school in five years time. And the year in which they were born is the year of 4G. It's those kids we're developing policy for now. It's about using space, time and skills as best as we can. If you think of the classroom of the past, it was 25 kids, one adult and one space. But IT allows you to have lots of different combinations of people and spaces.

"It's also about choice. Kids nowadays are used to having choices, working at different times, choosing when and how they want to go online. We can't have an education system just built around the nine to three model when this generation works on different timescales. We've got to get IT in schools to reflect the ways and times young people access education. If we put that together we might come up with a new model of education for the future."

Regarding the government's use of IT to drive efficiency, Morris says, "In society, we can't have a situation where the only group who spends loads of money on IT is the government. The problem is, we've had our fingers burned through contracts going wrong. We've been overspending and we can't keep repeating the errors of the past and wasting money.

"That said, we can't hide away and not use IT. We can't not do IT in government, even though we haven't got a great record. And we can save money and provide better services through IT."

Morris is far from alone for calling for IT to be taken more seriously as a subject in schools. Vint Cerf, one of the founders of the internet and Google's Vice President, recently backed the Chartered Institute for IT's call for computer science to be included in the English Baccalaureate.

Cerf said, "Every student should be offered the chance to gain a rigorous computer science qualification before they leave school. The UK Government could make this happen by including computer science as an option in the English Baccalaureate school performance measure. This will help head teachers realise that computer science is as important for the future success of their students as other scientific subjects such as maths or physics."

"There are now rigorous GCSEs in computer science, a new ICT curriculum is being developed at the request of the Department for Education (DfE) that has computer science at its heart...despite this phenomenal progress, computer science in school is still embryonic and vulnerable", he added.

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