Learning about the key tool for learning

Every tool for learning has in-built concepts, that help you learn better as you practice their use. But tools also have in-built bias that it is wise to be aware of. A textbook will have sections and an index and can be accessed as you want to. But it contains a selection of knowledge made by someone else, who has decided what is important and what should be omitted. It is a linear arrangement of knowledge that suits the author, not necessarily the learner. It’s very structure carries messages that should be questioned. Computers are no different in this respect.

The UK school curriculum does not currently include fundamental principles of computers that every citizen should be aware of. We try to ensure that when children leave school that they can recognise phony science and appreciate when they are being presented with biassed information and arguments. We try to help them see through statistics presented to confuse and obfuscate. We guide them in routes to a healthy life and how to avoid junk food.

The current ICT in the UK national curriculum does very little to help young people become aware of the true impact of computers on their lives. This stems from the very nature of computers and computing, the very things that can aid learning so strongly but which can also be used to control and harm.

Whether or not the ICT curriculum is the right place, in a free society schools are negligent if they don’t help children become aware of the power of computers in their lives. Computers are an amazing tool for learning. They can also be programmed to be very helpful to mankind. But computers can subtly guide and only partially inform. And they dis-intermediate - what a horrible but what an important word. Intermediaries are important for young and immature learners. Until a learner is able to make their own decisions about what is wholesome and helpful to their development in their particular society, guidance and some control of what they are exposed to is vital.

Powerful tools used the right way can dramatically extend one’s ability to achieve. But they can also cause much more serous injury.

Consider the positive impacts that the nature of computers has on learning:

Digital data never dies and can be reproduced at zero cost - constraints that previously limited the information and learning resources we could make available to young people have largely disappeared, at least in those schools and homes taking ICT seriously.

Computers are a superb environment in which to teach the skills of problem analysis, problem solving and development of complete and effective solutions to problems - and insight into the ways others have resolved problems they perceive in you is essential if you are not to be overly controlled.

Visual learning is hugely enabled - it is no accident that eyesight is one of the most advanced of the human senses and that we have phrases such as ‘seeing is believing’.

The ways work can be presented are hugely extended - particularly in ability to present for an audience, making communication of knowledge something that can be assessed alongside demonstration of knowledge in traditional forms. And this can be a strong incentive for learning.

The communication and collaboration functionality increases the possibilities for social learning - which is changing the whole dynamic of school learning.

But also consider the negative impacts:

Connectedness and instant communication lead to grazing of information rather than deep concentration and study - which requires that things that were a natural part of book learning, such as individual study and concentration may need to be taught more than previously.

The ways work can be presented, such as in presentations, can lead to facile and ‘surface’ work that does not show higher order learning - which requires the depth and rigour of work to be presented in different ways, perhaps through commentary.

The ease with which information can be presented in high presentational quality forms can allow erroneous and mis-leading information to appear more valid than it is - which calls for young people to develop much better skills in assessing information they access, from a much earlier age.

People who can be contacted through the Internet may wish to harm not help - and this may happen in insidious ways, such as people seeking to justify their deviant behaviour by supporting that deviant behaviour in others.

A society that is critically dependent on horses and other animals will take care to introduce children to these animals at a very early age, certainly as soon as they become independently mobile. Parents and teachers will ensure they know the importance of the animals, but also their dangers. Given the growing importance of computers in our society, are we being sufficiently responsible in the way we introduce children to them?

And are we starting at as early an age as we should?