In 1998 the BBC launched an initiative for nervous computer users (or rather not-users) "Computers Don't Bite". . . and 17 million people (!) later it added "Computers Don't Bite Teachers" for techno-reluctant teachers too.
I was asked to write the preface for the free booklet that the BBC published in 1998 in huge numbers for all teachers and all staff rooms. The initiative was a great success, but looking back on the words I wrote then in that preface I don't see anything I wouldn't say today to the same audience.
So here it is...
Schools are busy places and the tasks that fill a teacher's day seem to multiply annually. At the same time performance targets, tests and inspections are a constant worry and there are so many duties to be done; if Gilbert and Sullivan were writing today they would most likely have reflected that a teachers lot, never mind a policeman's, is not a happy one.
Unless you had a particular fondness for technological trouble shooting, a private life that offered endless opportunity to browse technical manuals and a rare predisposition to stay awake as you do so, you were likely to be one of many (quite sensible) teachers for whom the computer and worse still, its printer, constituted just one more problem, one more duty to be addressed, if only you had the time to do it properly.
But, computers themselves have got better, their software more powerful and their built in help has become really quite useful. With the genuine enthusiasm and commitment of the government translating into some real initiatives at the national level, it couldn't be a better time to have another look at computers and learning in your classroom.
Every teacher, parent, grandparent, guardian and governor will confirm that children have an unshakeable faith in the ability of their "Millennium Generation" to do remarkable things with technology. Of course every teacher will also tell you that an "unshakeable faith" does not necessarily translate into their doing as well as might be possible. The children need teachers to guide, to inspire, to brief them, to de-brief them, to mediate their experiences and to help them leap from learning about the computer to learning with it. The good news is that teachers' common sense still works around a computer. Whether it is siting the computer (and why do children so often have to sit and face the wall when they are mousing around?) or organising roles for three children sitting around the screen, teachers' wisdom remains a valuable complement to children's enthusiasm.
In addition, computers uniquely allow children to do things they couldn't do before: rapidly exploring many new enquiry strategies, posting requests to scientists in volcanic craters and getting hot responses, working with very different age groups and cultures, composing music directly onto the stave by playing it in slowly via a keyboard, investigating hypotheses like a link between pulse rate and limb length, finding a critical reader for their poetry on the other side of the world, taking a risk with a model of the economy, changing their mind in an artwork ('maybe that cobalt wash was a mistake"), fleshing out a story after writing the ending first and then reediting it finally again... The opportunities are boundless . Note that this does not mean the computer replacing the teacher. Far from it. Because children get to these things more quickly they even more urgently need the wisdom of their teachers to help them prepare for the experience, and unpack the result. Technology does not have to be as mechanical (or impersonal) as optical mark readers with multiple choice questions were. The computer is not a teaching machine, it is a learning tool and curriculum in all the corners of the United Kingdom reflects this in a brave and encouraging way.
Another reason to look again at computers is something of a surprise; technology is changing so fast and advances are so breathtaking that it would be arrogance indeed to suggest that anyone knew all the answers (or even had a full set of questions!) about the best ways that we might harness either technology or children's confidence and capability using it. For many teachers exploring what computers might offer, the excitement has been to find themselves once again in the role of action researcher, working to establish when why and how great learning can be engendered in new ways and looking for opportunities to share those ideas with colleagues. This small scale exploration within their own classroom reminds many teachers of their expertise as learning professionals; a chance to look up from the paperwork and ask searching questions about the difference between multimedia and multimediocre. For teachers who feared that computers would take their autonomy away, this comes as a pleasant surprise.
You may have noticed that the simple initials IT, for Information Technology, have transformed into the new set ICT. The additional C, for communication, is significant. Computers have always encouraged collaboration as children debate and argue around their screens, but as soon as computers joined together in networks we began to see clear evidence that we were building a generation who not only were happy to work with their peers elsewhere in the country (or indeed the world) but who also were able to debate and reflect upon the work they are doing. Teachers are great communicators; suddenly the computer is one more conduit for that communication to pass along.
Well, if you have read this far, despite the many tasks that fill a teacher's day, you might just be thinking you'll give the computer another chance in your learning environment. Please do. Computers are not perfect, but they really don't bite and the rewards, despite all the difficulties, might just be to see real delight on the faces of your children as they rush ahead with their learning thanks to your wisdom, to the computer's power and to their own personal hunger for learning.
© Stephen Heppell 1998, © BBC 1998