Compute our Education

I wrote this letter originally to our Scottish Education Secretary back in March 2012 – when will the government listen?

Dear Mr Russell,

I would like to enquire about current government thinking on the use of technologies in schools, colleges and universities, particularly with relation to the final exams and assessments student will sit.  I believe there is a golden opportunity for Scotland to lead the world by setting ambitious targets for phasing out handwriting tests by going digital.

In the current competitive economic climate, our nation needs every possible advantage.  Nowadays, businesses simply do not require applicants to have handwriting skills and, increasingly, rely on technology-savvy employees to make efficiency gains.  Ask yourself, when was the last time you actually wrote anything by hand, other than possibly to scribble down some notes?  Now, could that just have easily been typed or recorded into your Blackberry or iPad, then seamlessly transferred these to your desk or lap top computer?  As reported recently by the BBC News Online (14/02/2012), there is a growing trend towards BYOD (Bring Your Own Device), which underscores the importance employers are placing on technology in the workplace.

There are also gains to be made in using computers to create more equal opportunities for learners.  Tragically, there are many students who do not quite meet the threshold for ‘special exam arrangements’, but still struggle with the discipline of handwriting because they are, quite understandably, much more familiar with using technology and typing to process their thoughts.  In fact, many pupils and students should be seriously aggrieved at a system that, in the name of equality, gives extra help to those with the pushiest parents or the most serious diagnosis, thereby skewing SQA test results in favour of the fortunate few. 

As a Communication lecturer at Moray College, Elgin, I see students who really struggle with crafting answers on paper suddenly blossoming when we book an IT room and enable them to word process their answers.  Those tangents that previously were added with squiggly lines and arrows now can be seamlessly integrated into the text.   Paragraph plans can be quickly typed, as thoughts occur, and then the details filled in, without any unnecessary repetition of effort.  Many of those who ‘wash-up’ in FE have been failed by our out-dated educational methods and not been given the chances they need to thrive.  The tragedy is that those who never properly master handwriting, or are cursed with an almost illegible scrawl, then struggle to access and enjoy the majority of subjects in schools, which are divorced from real world media.  Alternatively, they may wind-up doing innumerable glitter-encrusted posters that doubtless enhance their creativity, but yet again fail to build-up their vocational skills.

For example, one 50-year-old student told me recently one of the best moments in his life was finally being able to express himself clearly and in a way others could understand after purchasing his first computer.  Previously, he was belted and sent to ‘remedial classes’ where nothing stuck.  Now, he is an aspiring author.  At the other end of the spectrum, I heard from a colleague of her P4 child in a local Elgin school who, in February 2012, was being chastised for not joining all his letters.  The teacher was wasting her and their time, standing over the class and insisting that every pupil conform to her preconceived notions of handwriting.  Now, personally, I have very legible and clear handwriting (being age 27 with a History and English Literature degree, so many opportunities to take notes on and write about interesting topics).  However, I do NOT join all my letters – that is not the style I have developed.  Why is this outdated nonsense given so much credence in the days of “A Curriculum for Excellence”?

We need to free-up time, so there is the opportunity to focus on Core Skills for all young people, not handwriting or calligraphy.  The curriculum is already exceptionally crowded and we need to prioritise what will genuinely prepare our future workforces for the demands of the 21st Century.  What matters with a person’s writing is accuracy, structure, format, logical argument… not the fact it is by hand!  There are so many other important skills to develop without giving inordinate emphasis to one technique.  It is very encouraging to see how computers have infiltrated so many parts of learning and teaching, but the process must continue and the thorny issue of assessments cannot be ignored.  I remember hearing of the innovative Secondary School on Islay who at least 5 years ago gave every pupil their own laptop.  We should be prepared to trial and assess the impact of such schemes.

From my previous experiences in Lochend (Easterhouse), Speyside (Aberlour) and Lossiemouth High Schools, I know that the key driver of change is the actual format of exams.  Many teachers will be slow to alter their practice or superficial in their adjustments, unless it affects their results.   The obvious case in point is CfE.  Despite innumerable ‘vision’ documents, only the publishing of the details of what tests will look like is bringing wholesale reforms.  Quite correctly, teachers know passes or fails is how they will be held to account.  Unfortunately, this means until the exam medium becomes electronic and technological too much time will be wasted in schools on processes and techniques that are redundant to the modern world.

It has now reached the stage where exams can be securely and effectively administered online.  Whilst I understand that money is tight for such a transformation, I would recommend scrapping all the local Council’s “Quality Improvement Officers”.  Again, from my experience and conversations with colleagues, their role was nebulous.  Why should schools need a pre-HMIE inspection audit?  This is totally unnecessary duplication.  The Senior Management Team in each school should be responsible to the parents and staff for improving quality, not another unnecessary layer of bureaucracy where mercenary individuals earn up to £60,000 for a function that causes unnecessary, even damaging, duplication.  If SMT are not up to the job in any school or working in heavy-handed, overly bureaucratic, non-collegiate fashions, then procedures need to be put into place for staff to identify and challenge this behaviour.  Investment must be directed to where it is most badly needed – on the front-line.

Moreover, pupils would be more encouraged and motivated to bring in their own electronic devices to help their learning, if they realised the importance schools and businesses actually placed on IT skills.  So many young people become disengaged with education because it does not reflect their world and seems fossilised.  Whilst, of course, appropriate safeguards and procedures would be required to regulate the use of technology in schools, we cannot simply ban change but must work to harness the potential of our “digital natives”.

This is already happening in some cases (“Exams Make Our Hands Sore”, The Guardian, 25th January 2012).   As reported, Edinburgh University offers first- and second-year divinity students a choice between handwriting or typing in essay-style exams (though this was clearly a poor pilot group to use as these individuals are most likely to be scholars in the traditional moulds).  This is a system copied from US law schools, where students download security software that blocks certain applications from laptops, making them suitable for assessment use.  The chief executive of Ofqual in England is already advocating an end to handwritten assessments and the implementation of computerisation (The Telegraph, 25th February, 2011).

Of course, this would have many spin-off benefits.  More and more services could be placed online, whilst pupils could be encouraged to teach tech-phobic members of their family.  By making this statement of intent, government would encourage IT to flourish, saving much money in the long-term and creating the basis for a more prosperous future.  Colleges are already geared-up for training students to use IT with much experience in getting alongside and helping those who fear the changes.  Libraries, schools and the Further Education sector can all be offering the facilities and support necessary for anyone and everyone to access the online, digital world.  We cannot allow anxieties to hold back technologies that, ultimately, liberate the lonely and disenfranchised. If we do nothing and bury our heads in the sinking sands of past traditions, we doom people by our inaction as the clock cannot be turned back.

I understand this would require a large capital investment and the history of centrally-led IT projects in schools (namely GLOW!) is not particularly encouraging, but I do feel that the Scottish Government can make a hugely significant improvement to our nation’s education with a relatively small change.  Handwriting, like calligraphy, will always be an art and should never be ignored, but must be put into proper perspective – useful for adding the personal touch to birthday cards, not the cornerstone of our curriculum.  I want to kick-start the debate on these issues but I plead with our politicians to consider setting ambitious targets to ensure that our children are educated for the 21st Century, not held back by 20th Century mores.

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