Critical English Online

ICT and English

ICT stands for "information and communication technologies", networked technologies with a multimodal interface, that is, networked or stand-alone computers, mobile phones with the capacity for a range of types of communication, and other technologies which allow multimodal and interactive communication. (This is the definition used by the Evidence-Informed Policy and Practice Initiative (EPPI): English Review Group, currently based at the University of York.)

The relationship between ICT and English has been highly theorised since the late 80s, and while a considerable amount of research has been done, a lot of the evidence on the actual impact of ICT appears rather inconclusive and at best tentative. Needless to say, ICT (or at least aspects of it) lends itself to both demonisation (e.g. Oppenheimer) and heroisation (e.g. Reinking). In the New Zealand context, the issue has been aired in the popular media under such headlines as "Cybertots all too soon" (Sunday Star Times, July 29, 2001) and "Computers in schools: Are they a waste of money" (see "The Mouse Trap", NZ Listener, July 14-20, 2001, 32-34).

Donald J. Leu Jr's American-based review of the research literature on this subject (in a chapter entitled "Literacy and technology: Deictic consequences for literacy education in an information age", in Kamil, M; Mosenthal, P; Pearson, P. & Barr, R. [Eds.]. Handbook of Reading Research: Volume III. Mahwah, N.J.: Erlbaum.) makes a number of points of relevance to any educational constituency. For instance, he distinguishes between a "transformative stance" to the subject which concerns itself with the new forms of literacy being generated by new digital technologies, and a "transactional stance" which sees literacy practices and technologies mutually influencing each other. (A New Zealand example of the transformative stance is Peter Roberts' article "Literacies in cyberspace" in J. Wright & J. King (Eds.). Set special: language and literacy (No 3). Wellington: NZCER; Camberwell, Vic.: ACER.)

A key point in Leu's review is his emphasis on what he terms deixis – the sheer pace of change in ICT and the literacy envisionments it generates. He points to the need for more classroom based research, additional theoretical perspectives, new research strategies, a revision of the learning outcomes attached to digital environment and an emphasis on knowledge and not just information. He questions the hegemony of English and the recent emphasis on setting national standards for literacy – a question of relevance to the New Zealand context where the notion of measurable outcomes currently reigns supreme. "If literacy is regularly redefined by new technologies and new envisionments, assessment must also be regularly redefined in the electronic futures our schools will inhabit." (You can check out more of Leu's thinking in Our Children's Future: Changing the Focus of Literacy and Literacy Instruction )

It was a concern for these electronic futures that drove the Australians to conduct a research project, investigating the interaction and relationship between literacy and technology in teaching and learning. The project, begun in 1995, was funded by the Commonwealth Department of Education, Training and Youth Affairs (DETYA) through the Children’s Literacy National Projects Programme and involved a research consortium with members from a number of Australian states. The outcome was Digital rhetorics: Literacies and technologies in education – current practices and future directions (Bigum, C. et al [1997], Canberra: DETYA).

There has been nothing comparable in New Zealand. There is a specialised report by Judy Parr of Auckland University (2000), A Review of the Literature on Computer-Assisted Learning, particularly Integrated Learning Systems, and Outcomes with Respect to Literacy and Numeracy for the Ministry of Education's Research Division. There is also the IT in School 1998 report, prepared for the Ministry of Education's Information Technology Advisory Group (ITAG) by Charles Sullivan, Janine Allan and Nicola Paul. This report provides information on such things as computer and internet access and attitudes to IT.

The relationship between ICT and literacy has figured in the research programme of the New Zealand Council for Educational Research (NZCER). Pertinent research by Sally Boyd and Susan McDowall, Techno Magic - Whizz or Fizz?: The Relationship Between Writing Mode, Editing Process, and Writing Product, details the findings from a two-stage multi-method study which focused on the editing skills, processes, and tools used by 96 students, at three year levels, from two schools, and how these impacted on their writing. The student data were analysed by writing mode (computer or pencil), gender, literacy level (high or low), and year level (year 3/4, 5, or 7).

Another current initiative is the Information and Communication Technologies Professional Development (ICTPD) School Clusters programmes. This programme is mentioned in a useful overview by Vince Ham in English in Aotearoa, 45, (December, 2001) of the ICT situation in NZ. The article is entitled "Putting computers in their place – ten years on". Ham reports that the ratio of computers to students in New Zealand schools has increased from 1:60 to 1:10 in primary schools and from 1:50 to 1:6 in secondary schools between 1989 and 2001. Virtually all schools now have ready internet access for staff and students. While English and language have increasingly been the main focus for the integration of ICT and learning, Jackie Halliday (2001), in another article in this issue ("Information and communication technology in the secondary school: A study of integration n the English curriculum") reports (on the basis of a sampling of 24 Auckland secondary schools) a "relatively low level of use of ICT for all year levels with the majority of teachers reporting using ICT only once a term or less" (p. 32).

For a different take ICT, you might like to visit Hyperpoetics, based at Waikato University. This site has been set up as part of an action research project entitled "ICTs and the teaching of English in secondary schools: Stretching the boundaries" and has an interest in the ways in which hypertext as a medium has the potential to transform traditional print-based genres.

So the questions facing New Zealand English teachers currently might be boiled down to two.

  1. How can we utilise ICT to achieve our current teaching/learning objectives better?
  2. If the rapidly changing nature of ICT is changing the nature of literacy practice, how will this be reflected in our learning objectives, our pedagogy and our envisionments of our classroom programmes?

The English in Aotearoa index gives one something of a take on how (some) New Zealand teachers have responded to the ICT challenge. Articles from the late 80s and early 90s focus on the use of word processors and (notably) hypercard in Karen Sheppard's article, "Poetry and computers: Hypercard and hyperpoet" which appeared in issue No 15 (October-November, 1991). A variety of perspectives is found in the special issue on Technology (No 32, September, 1997) and the more recent issue on ICTs and English (No 45, December, 2001). For a list of articles in English in Aotearoa dealing with the relationship of English and ICT/Technology, check out EIA Index.)

A key English-related development in response to the ICT challenges has been English Online, which is part of an ongoing English professional development contract between UNITEC Institute of Technology and the New Zealand Ministry of Education. In 1998 and 1999 it involved 100 primary and secondary schools per year. Each school nominated a lead teacher who undertook an Internet tutorial, and then developed a unit of learning which was posted on the site as a permanent resource for New Zealand (and international) English teachers. The units are written to support delivery of the New Zealand English Curriculum, integrating ICT wherever appropriate and possible. English Online also hosts a Book Backchat and a Writers' Window.

Meanwhile, the Ministry of Education has released its Information & Communication Technologies (ICT) Strategy for Schools 2002-2004 Draft. (See Summary.) Certainly ICT is flavour of the month. The Ministry of Education's Online Learning Centre, Te Kete Ipurangi (TKI) includes ICT as one of its communities. There you will find links to recent initiatives such as The Knowledge Breakfast, Principals' Leadership and Management Development Initiatives and the project Laptops for Secondary School Teachers.