ISSN 1470-5524

Practical advice for colleagues who use, teach, lead or manage information and communication technology (ICT) in schools.

04 February 2011

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In this issue

Editor’s opinion.

Conferences and concession conferences concession conferences.


Quick looks.

Review of the BETT Show.

The economic case for and against cuts in ICT spending.

What does the Government really think about ICT?


Contact details.



Want to make your ICT lessons more interesting? Then Go on, bore ‘em: How to make your ICT lessons excruciatingly dull is just right for you. Find out more about this incredibly low-cost, high value book here.

Editor’s opinion

This edition of the newsletter, and possibly the next one, represents a temporary break from the games-based learning series, in order to take advantage of some topical issues.

If you’ve been a subscriber for a while, you will have noticed that there has been a large gap between the publication of the previous newsletter (in October 2010) and this one. The reason is that around mid-October, and continuing until virtually the Christmas break, we had a prolonged period of continual awful news, which included family illnesses and three bereavements. As I’m sure you will understand, in view of the amount of time and energy all this took up, I had to prioritise paid work. Hence the large gap in publication, and also (as you may have noticed) periods in which the ICT in Education website was not updated for several days.

I'm pleased that the series I started recently called 25 ways to make yourself unpopular appears to be quite popular (!). What the series aims to do is take things which would appear to be unassailable and explore why they might raise people’s ire. For example, one would think that nobody could object to someone trying to do things properly – but there are good arguments as to why it could be a mistake to do so. Please take a look at the articles in the series, and let me know what you think.

I'm also delighted that the two e-books currently on sale from the ICT in Education site, Creating a Technology-Rich School  and Go On, Bore 'Em: How to make ICT lessons excruciatingly dull, are as in demand as ever. You can read reviews of the latter here and here, and of the former here.

The free Amazing Web 2.0 Projects Book has been downloaded at least 32,302 times since its publication in March 2010. Find put how teachers around the world have been using Web 2.0 applications in their classrooms, and what problems they faced. To download your copy, go to the Free Stuff page.

My recent writing includes a comprehensive guide to buying interactive whiteboards, with 6 product reviews, in PC Pro’s ICT Reviews Supplement. That also contains articles by Dave Smith, Merlin John and others. You can download a copy from the PC Pro website. Also, I reviewed BETT for the Guardian website: Bett 2011: Touch-screen technology moves centre stage at schools ICT show. The article gives a concise overview of BETT as seen by several people in the UK’s educational ICT community.

I’ve been updating the (relatively) new Writers' Know-how website . That's intended for writers rather than teachers, but because I write about technology on the site there is a fair bit of interest for teachers too I think. At the moment, I’m writing a series about the attributes of professional writers. I think much of it will be relevant to teachers of ICT and English.

Information request

I'm currently writing a chapter on Learning Platforms for a book on networked community schools. If you know of any great examples of Learning Platforms or Virtual Learning Environments being used, do let me know. Or if you know of where they have failed, or why they might do, I'd be interested in that sort of information and insight too. Thanks!

Conferences and conference concessions

Here are a few interesting-looking conferences which are coming up.  I’ve secured concessionary rates for subscribers to Computers in Classrooms for a couple of them. In one case you can get 30% off the standard entry price, and in another case you can obtain a 20% discount. My thanks go to the conference organisers concerned.

The importance of research for ICT Co-ordinators

This is a free  online discussion, which takes place at 7pm UK time on Tuesday 8th February, under the auspices of Vital. Christina Preston, founder of the teacher-centred research organisation Mirandanet, and its seminar programme of Mirandamods, discusses the importance of research for ICT co-ordinators. This is important because we don’t have to rely on anecdotes to show people how important technology can be in the learning process. Join Drew Buddie and me for an online discussion here.

Whose curriculum is it anyway?

Taking place on various dates until May, and in various venues, this conference is described thus:

A unique event to explore ways to 'reclaim' the curriculum and meet local schools and young people in your area already benefiting from the work of Whole Education's partners.

Whole Education's 'Whose Curriculum Is It Anyway?' event is a one-stop shop for schools interested in projects and resources to make learning more relevant and engaging, and help young people develop the skills, qualities and knowledge they will need for the future.

See this website for more information. Subscribers to Computers in Classrooms may take advantage of a 30% discount by using the code CiC30 when booking.

Skills for the UK Digital Economy: Delivering the IT Professionals of the Future

A very interesting-looking conference on February 9th, from the Westminster Forum. Look at the Agenda. The conference features some very interesting speakers. Book online -- you may enjoy a 15% discount if you are a teacher or similar.

Smartphones, tablets and apps ‐ the future for mobile

Another interesting-looking conference from the Westminster Forum people, on March 1st. Teachers et al may enjoy a 15% discount on the booking fee. Look at the agenda. Online booking form.

Thinking of going independent?

Lisa Spiller, of The Guardian, informs me that The Guardian is running a couple of seminars on this subject. The presenter on the course is Andrew Lagden, who is an education specialist. It’s obviously a very timely subject, and the programme looks pretty relevant.

Thinking of going independent? London on March 3rd, and Thinking of going independent? Huddersfield on March 9th.

Media skills for school librarians

Another course from The Guardian, this looks interesting too. It takes place on March 8th.

RSA’s Opening Minds Conference

This RSA conference on March 11th looks at how the RSA’s Opening Minds curriculum can be used to help develop students’ 21st century skills. Given the impending reform of the National Curriculum, it is clearly very timely.

Education 2011

This conference takes place in London on Tuesday 17th May. I’ve looked at the programme, and it looks pretty good, with some high profile speakers and some useful-sounding topics. Here’s the information, kindly provided by Aldona Limani:

Education is undergoing wholesale changes that promise to alter the future landscape for the next generation of teachers, pupils and resource managers alike. The Education Secretary, Rt. Hon. Michael Gove MP, has promised to give teachers more freedom to ‘innovate and inspire’. Parents, charities and businesses are also being encouraged to get involved in the way schools are run. ICT and new technologies are to play a crucial role in transforming how learning is designed and delivered.

With this new freedom the need for IT professionals, teachers and governors, to keep up with technological advances is becoming even more important for schools.

Attend the Education 2011 conference and hear more about the Government’s plans on embedding ICT, as well as discuss, debate and network with specialist technology suppliers and those involved in shaping and delivering policy.

Booking Information:

We are delighted to be able to offer you a discount of 20% off the standard price, or multiple booking discount if more than one delegate attends. Please quote promotional code 'CIC20' at the time of booking to secure your discount.

Multiple booking discount:

1 x delegate - £199 + VAT (usually £249 + VAT)
2 x delegates - £179 + VAT each (usually £225 + VAT each)
3 x delegates - £159 + VAT each (usually £199 + VAT each)

Register 5 delegates or more for just £125 + VAT (per delegate) (if your school is part of a Federation or other local group, why not get together to take advantage of this bulk booking rate?)

Registered Charities / Voluntary Sector: 1 x delegate – £149 + VAT each

For private companies- blue chip, we are able to offer £100 off the usual £995+Vat pp. price therefore paying £895+vat for blue chip, and SMEs are able to book at £395 +vat.

How to Book:

To view the full programme, please click here


In this section there are several short items which I hope you will find interesting and useful.

Uganda appeal

I had the pleasure of meeting four delightful students recently. Charlotte, Freya, Sophie and Luke are involved in a charity called Softpower Education, which is based in Uganda. The charity’s main aim is to build and refurbish schools for Ugandan children. The students I just mentioned will be helping out by providing drama workshops, art classes and performances for the children. (In case you haven’t realised, they are drama/theatre studies students.) The workshops will be educational in nature, but even more important, they will bring some much-needed fun into the children’s lives.

The foursome aims to raise half the money they need directly, and half (around £21,000 or $33,896) from sponsorship. This will pay for the flights and materials for 27 people involved. Individual members of the group may be sponsored from £500 to £1,150 (approximately $800 to 1800), although any amount donated would be appreciated. That’s where you come in. If each subscriber to Computers in Classrooms were to contribute a few pounds or dollars, it would amount to a pretty sizeable sum.

I asked Charlotte if any of the money would be used for educational technology. She tells me:

Yes there is a possibility in that, not only do Softpower Education build and refurbish schools, they also make learning centres for the children to have trips to. They use all kinds of teaching methods in them.

A link to the website of SoftPower is This explains more.  Unfortunately, if people donate directly to SoftPower it doesn't help us raise the money we need to give to the charity (£650 or more each) as that has to come directly from us, to show that we have fundraised. Also that we are looking for sponsors for flight money (£500 each) as that is through us rather than the charity, so we cannot fundraise for that. We are volunteering, therefore the charity cannot help us get over to Uganda.

If you would like to ask for more information, please contact Charlotte or her friend Lizzie at  . That is also the email address to use if you wish to donate some money via PayPal. If you would like to contribute but don’t have a PayPal account, email Charlotte and she will send you an email from her PayPal account inviting you to donate something. Charlotte and her friends are hoping to be able to fly out to Uganda in July. Please help out if you can.

What are school districts buying?

According to  the Digital Learning Environments newsletter, January 2011 (to which I am unable to link directly as you have to take out a free subscription), school districts in the USA are allocating their hardware purchasing budgets as follows:

Districts are looking more and more at the cost savings of purchasing netbooks but are still buying full-featured laptops. Here are the results [of our survey] in order of popularity.

Netbooks - 43%
Laptops - 31%
Desktops -14%
Tablet PCs - 11%

I find this quite interesting because my perception, from a UK perspective, is that tablets are emerging as a force to be reckoned with, but are not there yet. In terms of cost-effectiveness as measured by such things as battery life and range of applications, I would say that netbooks definitely have the edge over tablets. What do you think? Email me to let me know.

Facebook privacy settings

A reader writes:

The new Facebook privacy setting called "Instant Personalization" has gone into effect. The new setting shares your data with non-FB sites & it is automatically set to "Enabled". Go to Account>Privacy Settings>Apps & Websites>Instant Personalization>edit settings and uncheck "Enable". By the way, if your friends don't do this, they will be sharing info about you as well. Please copy and re-post.

The ICT Mark

Good news: Becta’s ICT Mark will continue after March 2010, under the auspices of the Department for Education. I would definitely recommend going through the process of accreditation. In fact, even schools not in the UK would still benefit, I think, from going through the self-review process. It’s an old chestnut, but as is often the case it’s the journey rather than the arriving that yields the benefits.

If going through the self-review process is not something your school is able to undertake at the moment, then consider carrying out an ICT Health Check. If nothing else, it will give you some useful insights into which aspects of your school’s ICT (if any) need addressing.

Review of Ofsted criteria

Related, in an unrelated sort of way, there is going to be a review of the Ofsted criteria for inspecting schools. There are at present 18 areas that inspectors have to look at. I am hoping that this will be reduced, and even that there will be a return to the Ofsted inspections of a few years ago. These involved a much more balanced assessment of data on the one hand, and first hand evidence from lesson observation and work scrutiny on the other.

BETT figures

The annual BETTfest has been and gone. Initial statistics released by Emap Connect suggest the following:

BETT 2011 attracted 14 per cent more head teachers than in 2010 (1705 compared to 1494). There were 2 per cent more deputy head teachers, and the numbers of heads of year, bursars, school business managers, and IT managers also grew.

As ever, visitors represented a broad range of education establishments, including state primary and secondary schools, sixth form colleges, Further Education colleges and universities. Visitor numbers from the nursery/pre-school sector rose by 50 per cent compared to 2010, suggesting that exhibitors may look to early years education for new opportunities, as younger and younger children are offered the benefits of a technology-rich learning environment. Visitors representing independent preparatory (primary/elementary) schools were also more numerous than ever before, with 20 per cent more attendees from this sector than in 2010.

These figures also show that BETT is reaching an ever-wider audience. The percentage of visitors from mainland Europe was up on last year by 5 per cent. Overall, international visitor numbers increased by 17 per cent compared to 2010.

I think the figures indicate that those sirens of doom who were writing BETT’s obituary in the latter half of 2010 were probably premature. Far from the new austerity deterring people from attending, on the grounds that they had no money to spend so why bother, it seems to have had the opposite effect. In researching the article for the Guardian website  I mentioned earlier, I discovered that people seemed to be on the lookout for ideas for saving money or making their budgets go further.

Who is the ’audience’?

Writing about BETT for several different websites as well as  both the ICT in Education website and this newsletter made me think about the idea of ‘audience’, because all of those articles had to be different, even though they covered the same event. Why?

Two reasons. First, nobody would pay for an article which has already been published somewhere else (unless they knew they were buying, say, Second British serial rights).  By the same token, if they were to publish the article and then see the same, or almost the same, article appear somewhere else soon afterwards, they would be pretty displeased. It could possibly lead to an unpleasant legal situation. It would almost certainly result in no further work from that source. But even without payment, there is an unwritten rule of etiquette that, unless agreed beforehand, you don’t send an editor an article you’ve already had published somewhere else, or publish it somewhere else soon after you’ve sent it in.

Second, the concept of ‘the audience’ is erroneous anyway. On the face of it, the audience for each of the publications/websites I’ve alluded to would appear to be the same, but of course that is not necessarily an accurate assumption. For example, the subscribers to Computers in Classrooms are all people with a professional interest in educational ICT who have gone to the bother of signing up for it. Does that not make them more committed, or different in another way, to the people who read blogs online for which they do not have to take out a subscription?

The point is, we have not one  audience here but potentially several. The ICT Programme of Study in the National Curriculum states that students should take into account the needs of the audience, but it seems to me that a more robust approach would be for teachers to thrash out with students who the broad audience actually is, how many potential audiences there are, and which one in particular is going to be the focus of attention. This is crucial for the assessing of ICT capability: unless you know who the intended audience  was supposed to be, you can’t judge whether or not a piece of work has addressed the needs of that audience.

There is also room here for collaboration with media and literacy colleagues, in a whole variety of contexts. Take digital signage. Who is the audience? Students, certainly. Teachers, of course. But also parents, Governors, inspectors and other visitors. In determining the content to be displayed, which of these audiences is or are being catered for? Which being more or less ignored? And how can the different, and potentially conflicting, audience needs be addressed?

The virtual team challenge

Andy Rosenbloom writes:

I would like to bring to your attention the opening of a new semester for the Virtual Team Challenge. The Virtual Team Challenge is an entirely FREE online, multiplayer business simulation that takes place in the animated 3D world of New City. The team objective in the simulation is to help the mayor (pictured to the right) stage the most efficient oil spill recovery effort. Top-performing teams are eligible for prizes for themselves, their teachers, and local charities!

The curriculum is designed to fit into any High School level intro to business, marketing, accounting, ethics, or finance course.

Check out the Virtual Team Challenge on Youtube ( for a walkthrough of the virtual world.

Andy informs me that it is suitable for students aged 14 and above.

Enhanced YouTube videos

Tay Omojokun writes:

I recently co-developed a new and free video-based tool that can help teachers share YouTube videos more effectively and accessibly. The service is called EmbedPlus, and it allows users to seamlessly and freely upgrade video embeds with attractive features that the standard YouTube players does not currently offer. It was recently mentioned to me that features like slow motion, scene marking/skipping, and 3rd party annotations would be useful for lecture, demo, and experiment videos. Similarly movable zoom can offer needed accessibility for some users.

To keep this short, I’ll just refer you to our homepage ( ), which offers more details and motivation.

I’ve tried it out, and I’m impressed. It’s frustrating and time-consuming trying to get to the right section of a video, and not an ideal activity in a classroom situation. Embed Plus makes it much easier. The only caveat I would add is that when I tried to incorporate the embed code in this newsletter, which I wrote using Windows Live Writer, it seemed to cause Live Writer to stop working.

Can you think of how EmbedPlus could be used as a teaching tool?

Changed URL for Scimorph

Sean Hughes writes:

I am Great Friday’s web analyst and seo. You have a piece about Scimorph, our augmented reality project.

We have just launched a new site, and as such changed the majority of our URLS. So in your newsletter, the link would hit a 404. The changed URL is:

Safer Internet Day

This annual event us nearly upon us – 8th February 2011. See the Safer Internet Day website, and the Safer Internet Day Fair. What will your school be doing for the event? Check out the Think u Know website too. You might also find this post interesting: Digital Safety for Children and Youth. It has some interesting links.

Technology is the key to getting out of the doldrums

According to a recent report by e-Skills UK,

Of course, the big question is whether we’ll be able to meet that demand with home-grown graduates. I’m not too optimistic about that because we’re not doing that great a job of attracting school leavers into relevant Higher Education courses, especially girls. How about retraining and recruiting people in the 50+ age group? What a pity the adult education budget in the UK was cut some time ago. You can download the full report from the e-Skills UK website. Free sign-up required.

Drew Buddie and I were joined by several others recently, including Dr John Cuthell and Leon Cych, in an online discussion about the ICT Skills Gap. Listen to it and follow the chat discussion.

Three views of the educational ICT landscape

Lucie Mitchell, of Public Technology, interviewed Peter Twining, Stephen Heppell and myself at BETT, on a variety of subjects ranging from the latest ed tech trends seen at BETT to advice on managing ICT on a budget. You can see the resultant video on the Public Technology website.

National Curriculum consultation

The UK government has launched a consultation on the National Curriculum. English, Maths, Science and PE are definitely going to be in the National Curriculum, which will be a core curriculum of what is considered by the Government to be essential knowledge. Which of the other subjects, if any, will be included in the core will depend (at least in part) on the outcome of the consultation.

Should ICT be a part of the new slimmed-down National Curriculum? If it doesn't make it, should it continue to be part of the wider "broad and balanced" curriculum? If so, should there be non-statutory guidance in place? And for which Key Stages?

If you believe ICT has an important part to play in the curriculum, do take part in this online consultation process.

Switched-On ICT

This is the name of the primary (elementary) scheme of work I've been involved with, as Series Editor. That role has entailed advising on assessing pupils' ICT capability, and helping to make sure that the instructions and assessment opportunities and statements are both consistent and accurate.

The text is engaging, with topics such as We Are Explorers, and makes full use of Web 2.0 and other free applications as well as schools' Learning Platforms. Here is a list of what I see as its strengths:

I’ve written an article about it: Switched-On ICT.

Have a look at the Switched On ICT website for more details, and email Andrea Carr for a sample Unit to look at and try out.

Employability survey

What are the ideal characteristics that employers look for in school leavers? According to a survey carried out by the YMCA, it's not what you might think. At the very top of the list is Honesty, followed by Attitude, Motivation and Time-keeping in equal 2nd place, and then by Willingness to Train in 3rd place. Educational Qualifications came in at a very low 5th place, with Work Experience and Trade Qualifications much higher at 4th place.

Thanks to Clare Pettini, Foundation Learning Manager, Romford YMCA Training for these statistics.

Quick looks

In this section I give you the heads-up on stuff which looks interesting, but which I haven’t the space to explore in depth.

Are 1:1 tech initiatives the wrong kind of reform?

This is the question that Jerrid W. Kruse asks in a thought-provoking article. He makes some excellent points, such as:

…technology is not teaching.  Frank Noschese sent out a tweet that provides two videos of mathematics instruction.  One is without digital technology, the second is with 1:1 iPads.  Unfortunately, the iPad class is the epitome of traditional instruction.  The iPads serve as electronic textbooks from which students copy and complete problems individually.  The non-digital tech class is collaborative, reflective, and dynamic.  My point here is that 1:1 is not, by itself, reform.

Using ICT as an instructional aide rather than subject matter

An article from the perspective of South Asia introduces the publication of an essay which explores this theme. Here’s an extract:

The effective use of ICT as a tool for education relies on the coordination of various governmental, financial, educational, and community based groups and policies. The planning process must include those at all levels, from the micro-level of the classroom to the macro-level of national policies on infrastructure, connectivity, and communication. One of the key learnings of this essay is that more emphasis needs to be placed on using ICT for instruction, as opposed to teaching about ICT as part of a curriculum.

The article includes links to five essays concerning ICT policy in India and South Asia.

The biological implications of social networking

A fascinating article which looks at what happens on a physiological level when someone experiences social isolation.

Whether in or out of the home, more people of all ages in the UK are physically and socially disengaged from the people around them because they are wearing earphones, talking or texting on a mobile telephone, or using a laptop or Blackberry.

The article is not an easy read, and what it seems to be saying (if I may be allowed to give a simplistic summary) is that as we connect more and more virtually, we are doing so less and less physically, and if you are feeling socially isolated this causes biological changes which make you more susceptible to illness.

Distance learning with a difference

Posted in a Naace mailing list (I think) by Ray Tolley, this video describes an approach to teaching children in India by grannies (though it doesn’t have to be grannies) in England. As the blurb on the YouTube site says:

The brainchild of Sugata Mitra, professor of educational technology at Newcastle University. Mitra has recruited hundreds of grannies in Newcastle to go online to help children in India with their education, based on the grandmother method -- stand behind, admire, act fascinated and praise.

It’s only 7 minutes long, so take a look.

What is reasonable to expect from information and communication technologies in education?

This is the question posed by Oscar Becerra, M.Ed. in this excellent article about developments in educational ICT in Peru. A good mix of both theory (eg Pappert) and experience, with plenty of references to follow up should you wish to do so. Some of it could have been written anywhere in the world, such as:

I am not against consuming good contents, my concern is children usually learn more when they are producing contents than consuming it, unless it is really interesting for them, which takes me to the ideas R. Bao and myself wrote about in 2004: the lack of meaning crisis in the educational system. A crisis happening in spite of a well thought sensible curriculum designed and validated to be a tool for development of competences preparing children to succeed in the XXI century.

Review of the BETT Show

by Christina Kenny

From visiting the BETT show, this gave me an insight to the technology in which we expect to see within schools in the next few years. We walked around feeling slightly uneasy to begin with as we felt many of the people on the different stalls knew we were students and therefore did not pay much attention to us because of this.

We visited many different stalls in which we picked on the main examples of technology which we found to appear more than once. The first thing I noticed was the large push towards the involvement of parents within the children’s education which was found within the Virtual Learning Platforms. I personally think this is lacking within some of the schools in which I have visited and therefore I think this would benefit the children’s whole learning experience. These allow parents to keep track of their children's learning when they are at school as well as allow them to assist them when they are home and reinforce the learning.

One of the other main things which I noticed when walking around was the move towards the use of 3D technology within the school environment. I can understand why this could give a different learning experience for the children. However I feel this raises questions about how cost-effective these would be. Also, this would require every individual child having their own use of 3D glasses: would this really work within the classroom environment with young children? Surely by allowing the children to have hands-on experience, for example, within science experiments, what is the difference? By allowing the children to do it for themselves you would expect this to be more beneficial to the children's learning compared to the use of 3D technology, because ‘doing is remembering’.

I feel this applies very much to subjects such as Science. Some of the different stalls introduced software to work alongside with the Science curriculum, however I feel by doing this it is taking away the exploring and learning for children. I think this as, in my opinion, children would obtain a more valuable and beneficial learning experience by carrying out a Science experiment for themselves rather than everything being taught to them by watching it on an interactive whiteboard.

I personally felt a lot of the various stands within the BETT show were offering similar learning experiences for children through a number of ways. Therefore this can sometimes be confusing for a teacher/ICT co-ordinator and other members of staff within the school to know which one is the best one to purchase and use within their school environment. However I think this links with teachers knowing their children and what would work better for the children within their class. I really liked the introduction of the large whiteboards within the classroom. There was a large focus on the use of interactivity within the classroom, moving away from the traditional keyboard and so on, which would allow the children to work more collaboratively and in a more interactive way.

The BETT show was interesting as it allowed me to see the different technology in which I would expect to find within the classroom. However I think we felt that it would have been helpful if we had been able understand and imagine how some of the technology would work within the primary classroom. For example, this may link back once again to the lack of people who approached us from the various stands. As a trainee teacher, it allowed me to see the technology which companies are wanting to introduce into the classroom environment. However I sometimes think technology has developed so quickly that some teachers think this is an easier approach to take when delivering various lessons. I feel it is very important for children to have an understanding of where it has all developed from, and to understand it is a way of assisting their learning and understanding. In my opinion, children still need to have the everyday basics as a way of learning and finding things out, rather than turning to a computer straight away for the answers.

About the author

Christina Kenny is currently a second year student at Roehampton University. She is studying for a BA in Primary Teacher Training, and has chosen to student ICT as her specialist subject.

The economic case for and against cuts in ICT spending

I regard economics as a useful intellectual discipline. Like any academic subject, it has its own nomenclature, its own methodology. I think these can be useful tools sometimes, for analysing, or at least thinking about, a situation without becoming embroiled in politics and other distractions. In these two articles I will look at the main economic arguments for and against cuts in spending on ICT.

These articles were prompted by the cuts being seen in Britain at the moment, such as the disappearance of the Harnessing Technology grant, whereby schools received funding towards their educational technology spending, and of organisations such as Becta, which provided advice and guidance on such matters.

However, they should be applicable in any country, and at any level. For instance, the arguments might be applied in a school setting as well as a more general one.

The economic case for cuts in ICT spending

One of the fundamental concepts in economics is that of the margin. It’s a simple concept, but an astonishingly powerful one, because most decisions are made at the margin. What does that mean? Perhaps an example would serve to make it clear. Suppose I am in a supermarket. My purchasing decisions are going to be dictated not only by what I would like to have, but also by how much of those items I already have. For example, whether I buy one litre or two litres of milk will largely depend on how much milk I already have in the fridge. We also assume nothing else has changed, ie that I am not having some sort of party tomorrow night, which would change the situation.

In fact, how much I already have will also determine the amount of effort I’m prepared to go to in order to acquire more. Thus, if the supermarket has run out of milk but I already have a litre in the fridge, I’ll probably say to myself that I’ll buy some more tomorrow or the day after. If, however, I have no milk at all, I’ll drive around until I find a shop that has some for sale.

What this example illustrates is the fact that the value of something is partly determined by how much of it we already possess, in relation to how much of it we want. The more you have, the less “valuable” each extra amount of it becomes. That is pretty obvious once it’s been said, but the interesting thing is how we tend to forget these points when arguing for more funding. Before we transfer the arguments to that area, let’s formalise them a little.

The two key concepts in this context are marginal utility and marginal cost. Marginal utility is the benefit or satisfaction derived from each extra unit of a good or service, whist marginal cost is the cost of acquiring one extra unit of a good or service. Marginal utility decreases as the amount of the product you have increases, whilst the marginal cost increases.

It’s important to remember that the total benefit you enjoy from the product may be increasing even though the marginal benefit is decreasing. Here’s how it works. Let’s say I have no milk in the fridge. When I buy a litre of milk, I get an enormous amount of satisfaction from that, mainly because it has made the difference between having a decent cup of tea and not having one. The satisfaction I derive from buying a second litre of milk is nowhere near as great as the satisfaction I had from buying the first one, but I’d still rather have two litres than one litre of milk in my fridge (because it means I have the option of having a milky bedtime drink, it won’t matter so much if I spill some accidentally, and I know I won’t have to go shopping again in a few days’ time), so my total satisfaction has still gone up.

The marginal cost goes up because every time I buy another litre of milk, it costs me the price of the milk. If I also have to drive further to another shop, it’s cost me the extra fuel too.

We can show these opposing tendencies on a graph, like this:


So what is the optimum quantity of milk to buy? It’s the amount at which the Marginal Cost and the Marginal Utility are equal. If Marginal Utility is higher than Marginal Cost, it means you’re getting more satisfaction than it’s costing you to get it, so you can still afford, in a sense, to get even more. On the other hand, if Marginal Cost is higher than Marginal Utility, it means that the extra milk is costing you more than the value of the satisfaction or benefit you’re getting from it, so you should have bought less.

In terms of educational technology, the argument would go something like this: when you have no computers in the school, buying one per classroom is going to yield great benefits. Then buying an extra one per classroom is going to yield even more benefit – but not by as dramatic an amount as the first set of purchases. In other words, the marginal utility has gone down, even though the overall benefit has gone up.

Let’s bring another aspect of cost into the mix. One of the most fundamental concepts in economic theory is opportunity cost, which is the cost of something in terms of the next best thing foregone. This is important because it means that even if you can negotiate bulk purchase deals, thereby reducing the financial cost of buying extra computers, the real marginal cost – that is, the marginal cost expressed in terms of opportunity cost rather than only financial costs -- could still remain high. This is because spending an extra $10,000 on computers means, for argument's sake, no replacement for the grand piano in the music department, or no extra equipment for the gym. or not replacing basic furniture like desks and chairs.

Bringing all these ideas together, it’s perfectly reasonable to argue that, having had around 20 years of high and sustained investment in educational technology in Britain, the benefits of any additional funding are likely to be lower than they have been, and possibly less than the real marginal costs associated with providing the necessary funding. Moreover, given the amount of knowledge and experience now in the public domain, it might be argued that large organisations such as Becta are no longer as necessary as perhaps they were 20 or 30 years ago. Even Niel McLean of Becta has said that there comes a time when it’s appropriate for quangoes like Becta to go. He drew an analogy with the Romans’ method of constructing bridges. First they erected a wooden structure, and used that as the foundation of, or template for, the bridge. Then, once the bridge had been built, they burnt the wooden structure, as there was no longer any need for it.

In short, at a time of recession especially, it is not axiomatic that further spending on educational technology is the best use of our resources.

The economic case against cuts in ICT spending

The economic case for cuts in ICT spending is logical, but it is based on certain assumptions which may or may not be justified. One of the most fundamental assumptions always made in economics is ceteris paribus, which means “other things remaining equal”. This assumption is handy because it enables us to compare like with like. However, when it comes to technology especially, this could be seen as such an outlandish assumption that it invalidates the entire basis of the argument.

In particular, we assumed above that when we buy more technology in a school, we will be buying more of the same. This is unlikely to be the case in reality for two reasons.

First, there is a whole variety of types of educational technology, ranging from small personal devices to interactive whiteboards and wireless networking systems. Second, and perhaps even more fundamentally, even if you buy a second set of the same technology, the later version is almost certain to be different, because changes are continually being made.

In addition, the ceteris paribus assumption ignores qualitative changes which (could) take place as the quantity of educational technology increases. In a school in which there is one computer per classroom, you’re unlikely to see a critical mass of teachers using the technology as an integral part of their teaching. Ramp it up such that everyone has access to the technology whenever they like, and it becomes feasible for teachers to share ideas, help each other, and even run training courses for colleagues.

And let’s not forget that the type  of work that can be undertaken by students with access to technology and, especially, the internet is very different from that which can be undertaken in the absence of such technology. If anything, it’s likely to be more demanding, more creative and more realistic.

For these reasons, although the theory of diminishing marginal utility (as it’s known) may still be true in principle, in practice the marginal utility curve is likely to be continually shifting to the right, as shown below. That means that as more technology is acquired, the higher the benefits of each additional amount purchased.


Finally, we should also consider the issue of externalities. These are the wider costs and benefits associated with an activity. For example, having more technology means the school might consider hiring out its facilities to the community, thereby earning some extra money for itself as well as helping the community. It may be able to offer a wider range of computer-related courses, perhaps benefiting both the local and national economies in the long term, perhaps by helping to make some unemployed local people more able to take advantage of upcoming employment opportunities. On the other hand, it may make the school more vulnerable to burglary. If all students take laptops home, they may be more vulnerable to mugging.


Both arguments rely heavily on assumptions, which may or may not be true in practice. They also depend on precision; at least, the terminology and the graphs suggest that there is a greater precision involved than is really the case. I think precision is actually not that important. For example, I may not be able to measure precisely the social costs and benefits of a school acquiring extra technology. However, the important thing, I think, is to recognise that these dimensions exist. Whether you are against or in favour of ICT funding being cut, there is more to it than meets the eye. If nothing else, it is always good to be aware of the opposition’s arguments, if only to be able to better refute them!

What does the Government really think about ICT?

I am by no means an apologist for the Government, but it seems to me that colleagues who have seized on the absence of ICT in the recent White Paper on the future of teaching as indicative of the Government's lack of interest in, or commitment to, ICT may have been premature. As an ex-Ofsted inspector I would say that absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. The White Paper failed to mention electricity as well, but I'm sure the Government would be surprised if anyone took that mean the Government thought schools should be run on gas!

I wonder if, in fact, the lack of attention to ICT is more of an indication of a view that ICT in schools is already in place, so we can turn our attention elsewhere? This is certainly the impression I have come away with having spoken to certain people. Mr Gove does, in fact, recognise the importance of technology. In his keynote opening speech at the Education World Forum, he said:

Because with every year that passes we are privileged to enjoy new insights about how best to organise schools, how best to inspire pupils, how to use new technology, how the brain absorbs knowledge, how teachers can best motivate, how parents can better support, how governments can best invest. (my emphasis)

Dominic Savage (left) and Tim Loughton at BETT 2011

 At the BETT show, Tim Loughton, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Children and Families, placed a great deal of emphasis on educational technology. Well, he would, of course, given the occasion, which was the Leadership conference at the BETT show, but I thought he gave cause for optimism -- although I know some of my colleagues disagreed with me when I expressed this.

My cause for optimism, and my colleagues' cause for pessimism, were one and the same. Mr Loughton placed a great deal of emphasis on e-safety, which he said was a 21st century issue. He and his colleagues have even had a visit and talk by Tanya Byron.

Well, you can see why colleagues involved in e-safety issues would be upset by such a viewpoint. Many of us have tried hard, over the years, to convince people that e-safety is a whole school issue, not just an ICT issue, and I have long said that phenomena such as cyber-bullying are a subset of bullying, not a class of their own. From that point of view, the Government's approach appears to be putting the clock back, or to be a diversion from wider, and possibly even more important, issues -- such as how to teach young people to be safe rather than assuming that all can be solved with the right sort of internet filtering software.

I take a more sanguine view. The White Paper talks about the idea of teaching schools, akin to teaching hospitals. They present an opportunity for the ICT community to influence what is taught and what is held to be best practice. These teaching schools could be beacons of educational technology excellence.

As for the e-safety angle, surely an savvy ICT person would use that as a virtual foot in the door? Whilst showing government representatives or any other officials who visit your school your marvellous e-safety measures, why not show them the oher wonderful things you have in place too? The same applies when writing about educational technology.

Perhaps I am a hopeless optimist, but I think that if the Government is willing to listen to someone like Tanya Byron, it suggests that they willing to listen, full stop. Besides, dismissing other people's (perceived) point of view out of hand doesn't seem to me to be a particularly intelligent approach; nor does it seem likely to guarantee any kind of dialogue, let alone a fruitful one.


Thanks to all of the contributors. This newsletter is (c) 2011 Terry Freedman, but individual contributors retain ownership of their copyright. Please send items of potential interest to me. Please enquire before sending me a complete article.

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