Half finished essay

image: Cromwell / Regan

Well, it’s not really an essay, but a piece of reflective writing about policy, theory and practice. Still has numerous flaws, inconsitent style and another 1500 words to write, but let me know what you think it needs if you find yourself inclined.

How should the Internet best be used in secondary education?

Having revolutionised the way we communicate and distribute information, the Internet is currently sending industries such as print media and the music industry into a panic. The choice seems to be as follows: change and accommodate, or face extinction. Since the mid 1990s, the education system has also been under pressure to respond and adapt to a world increasingly dominated by the Internet. In this paper, I will examine the theoretical debate surrounding what this response should be. I will explore how policies at governmental and school level both encourage and restrict school internet use. Throughout the paper, I will be reflecting on how I used the Internet to supplement teaching and learning during my time on placement in two comprehensive secondary schools.

I count myself as a technophile, spending hours every day online, usually multi-tasking, and more often than not wasting time reading trivial information. I am at the older extreme of what Don Tapscott (1998) has called the “Net Generation” – a generation of digital natives, young people who have grown up with the internet as a commonplace and everyday part of their lives. Tapscott describes “N-Geners” as open-minded free-thinkers, partaking in online collaboration and expression while using the web’s vast resources of information to feed a sceptical and analytical attitude. He describes the transmission method of education as top-down, old-fashioned and authoritarian, and extols the virtues of non-linear learner-centred methods, using the internet to enable children to learn through discovery. This view echoes that of theorists such as Dewey (1933), who believed that children learn best through doing, as opposed to the rote memorisation exercises popular in his time.

I read Tapscott’s Growing Up Digital during the summer, and took its ideas and optimism into my first placement school. I was excited by the thought of working with a class of switched on N-Geners, letting them loose in the computer room with a research task and letting them amaze me both with their creative use of the Internet and their critical attitude towards the information that they found. The class with whom I first used e-learning was a Year 10 option group, (i.e. they had chosen to take GCSE Religious Studies) and as such they generally displayed a higher level of motivation than my other classes. After a starter reviewing the topic of science and religion, I explained the task and had them all sit down at computers. Using internet research, the students were to produce a PowerPoint presentation explaining some different views on the origins of the universe. The task was intentionally broad; I wanted to provide space for the students to investigate an aspect of the topic that they were interested in, and allow them to personalise their own learning. The idea was to capitalise on the expansive nature of the internet through use of the discovery method. I was also simultaneously embedding ICT in a cross-curricular manner as recommended by the government’s National Strategy, strand 1 “Finding information” (DCSF, 2008). The National Strategy stipulates that at Year 10, students should “independently select appropriate information from a wide range of sources for a specific task”

But providing learners with a high degree of autonomy is a risky business. While some students produced work of a high standard, others: cut and pasted from Wikipedia; researched red herring subjects such as Scientology, thinking that this was a mix of science and religion; or spent a long time choosing the design, text colour and image for the first slide of their presentation and not much time on actual content. On reflection, I decided the task was lacking in two major areas. Firstly, the students had not been given clear expectations for the outcome with regards to cut and pasting and an emphasis on content over design. Secondly, the work was not of the critical standard that I had believed was an innate part of the Net Generation. This was largely the fault of the task, which involved no instruction that the work be critical.

At a deeper level, there were issues of choice and control and the role of the teacher. As Dron (2007, p.54) notes,

“There is a subtle relationship between choice and control, whereby too much choice reduces control as effectively as too little. The fact that learners are, by definition, unable to make effective choices in (at least) some of the processes that might lead to learning provides a rational justification for the existence of teachers.”

By handing over too much responsibility for the direction of the activity, I risked reducing my status as a teacher and in turn, my authority to criticise the students’ work. It became clear that I was still looking for a balance between providing autonomy and retaining control and clear expectations.

Questions about my identity as a young teacher also arose following the lesson. Specifically, I became aware of a somewhat conceited belief that unlike older teachers, my students and I were part of the same generation with regards to our use of technology. However, writers such as David Buckingham have expressed scepticism that this talk of a “digital generation” is actually useful:

“So is there a digital generation? I would argue that, to a greater or lesser extent, technological change affects us all, adults included … We need some fine distinctions to capture what is happening here. For example, computer games are frequently identified as a children’s or young people’s medium, but in fact research suggests that the average age of game players is now 30.” (2006, p.11)

Reflecting on the issue, I wondered why I was so ready to believe in what was beginning to seem like a rhetorical fiction from the world of marketing and less a genuine empirical phenomenon. Could it be that I was compensating for my lack of interpersonal teaching skills (still developing at this stage of my professional career) with overambitious hopes for my relatively competent ICT skills? Worse, was I projecting my own love of the internet onto my students, and thus making a mockery of this being “student-centred” education? Leaving my motivations aside for a moment, it was still clear that the lesson had suffered through my thinking of the students as belonging to a “generation”. Seeing them as a homogenous whole was clouding my ability to see the students as individuals, with differing levels of digital literacy.

There seems to be little doubt that the proliferation of the Internet will continue to develop over the coming years, and if education is about preparing children for the future, then schools should be equipping students with the skills to use the Internet effectively. This view is shared by the government, and is reflected through policy such as the National Strategy for ICT. We can also see this through the ICT functional skills component of the Diploma, formed in response to demand from industry.

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