Keep plugging

Some teachers are on top of technology; too many are not. How can schools bridge the digital divide? Steven Hastings investigates
21st November 2008, 12:00am
Steven Hastings


Keep plugging

A crowd gathers around the large screen in reception. On it there's a chicken egg, which suddenly explodes, drawing gasps and giggles from the onlookers. "That's our class done that," says one girl. "So how's it work then?" asks another. "Easy - you fill the egg with hydrogen."

The "eggsplosion" happened earlier today, at King James's School in Knaresborough, as part of a Year 10 science lesson. It was captured on a pupil's mobile phone, Bluetooth-ed into a school computer and edited. Now it's being broadcast around the school on 42-inch LCD screens, along with highlights from other lessons, action from a school football match and footage of a biology field trip.

Teachers at the 1,700-pupil comprehensive have embraced technology, often learning from pupils how to exploit it. Not all school staff are as confident though. Research earlier this year for Becta, the schools technology agency, found that only 17 per cent of primary teachers and 5 per cent of secondary teachers were confident about using ICT.

Another study this year, this time for the National Foundation for Educational Research, discovered that more than a third of teachers feel they don't have the skills to exploit the technology available to them.

Becta says that only one in five schools is making good use of the technology they have. King James's is at the cutting edge. Every pupil is encouraged to take video clips in lessons on their mobile phones and share them. Mobile phones are integrated into lessons in other ways too - to collect data and exchange ideas. In languages, for example, oral assignments are recorded on to phones, as is the teacher's feedback.

But it wasn't always so. Two years ago, mobile phones were banned. "It was madness," recalls Paul Walters, the school's ICT development manager. "We're a technology college. Mobile phones were the most sophisticated technology in the school - and yet we banned them."

The school had its reasons. But far from leading to an outbreak of disruptive texting, intrusive ringtones or unwanted appearances on YouTube, allowing phones in the classroom has brought about a welcome shift in attitudes. "When mobiles were banned, I'd see groups of pupils gathered around a phone looking shifty," says Paul. "The technology was in the hands of the rebel. But once pupils start using technology for the right things, they stop using it for the wrong things."

It's a neat illustration of the dilemma schools face when it comes to 21st-century technology. Do they stay within the comfort zone of teachers, who might only see the risks, rather than the rewards? Or do they embrace the most up-to-the-minute gadgets and lay claim to them for educational purposes?

For Paul, there's no debate. "You simply can't give pupils information in the way you yourself might like to receive it. They've been born into a different age. They're so comfortable with technology, it's like their brains are wired differently."

This generation gap can easily leave teachers feeling bewildered and intimidated. Knowing your pupils understand the latest technologies better than you do can be daunting. The trick may be to hold on tight and go with the flow, letting pupils show you what the latest gadgets can do, and then using your educational expertise to find the classroom potential in it.

Some of the best innovations at King James's have come about this way. When a pupil told Paul about a nightclub where you could text messages directly on to a giant screen, he got hold of the software and set the same thing up in classrooms. Now pupils too shy to join in a discussion can simply text their thoughts on to the screen. More recently, a pupil was explaining how he was passing a shop, which Bluetooth-ed him details of in-store offers. Great idea, thought Paul - and now teachers at King James's use the same "proximity advertising" software in lessons, offering pupils the chance to download PowerPoint presentations directly to their phones.

The King James's approach has been to look at the technology pupils know and like, and then find ways to make use of it. A similar tactic has worked wonders at Twynham School in Dorset. When the school was designing its online learning resources, using Microsoft's SharePoint technology, it began by thinking about how pupils use the internet. Pupils were involved in every stage of development, disclosing the secrets of their surfing habits and owning up to their blogging addictions.

The end result was a learning gateway that they enjoy and find easy to navigate, and which reflects the kind of websites they use in their spare time.

Twnyham's online resources include more than 4,000 digitised clips: Year 9s considering their subject options, for example, can watch highlights of different GCSE lessons, to get a feel for what's involved. Also popular are the subject forums, where pupils can ask each other questions or simply bounce ideas around. Staff dip into the forums occasionally, but most of the time pupils are happy to accept help from their peers. Pupils can also set up their own My Site page, containing personal information and allowing them to share documents.

Alongside the learning gateway, there's also a revision gateway. "Pupils like the idea of revision websites," says Mike Herrity, assistant head. "But one boy told me he spent three hours trawling around to find something helpful. We've produced something much more tailored to their needs, where they can access syllabus information, past papers and even mark schemes."

In the build-up to last year's exams the biggest users of the site were middle-attaining boys, and when the results came out that was the group that had most exceeded expectations. In other words, the revision gateway really works.

Twynham and King James's are leading lights when it comes to integrating technology in schools. Twynham won this year's Learning Beyond The Classroom award from Becta, while Paul Walters was nominated in the best practitioner category at the Handheld Learning awards. Becta's latest Harnessing Technology survey shows though that many schools are not ready to take the next step towards a life of wi-fi, Bluetooth and high-tec teaching: only about one in five is making good use of the technology they have. The survey also reveals that 85 per cent of teachers felt they needed more training to use technology effectively.

Paul Hopkins, an IT consultant who runs training workshops for teachers, agrees that it's a mixed picture. He says that the average teacher is more confident than a few years ago, and that those who've entered the profession in the past decade tend to be highly skilled. But he also says few teachers are using technology to fundamentally change the way they teach. "If all you do with your interactive whiteboard is show video clips or PowerPoint presentations, then what's the big deal? We were showing film reels in schools 40 years ago."

In many cases, teachers aren't helped by the infrastructure. Despite government investment of about a billion pounds a year in technology, access to facilities is often rationed. Until recently, large amounts of cash went into funding technology suites, where teachers could take their classes once a week. This is as ridiculous, says Paul, as having a writing room where children go and write for an hour.

Now the rallying call is a laptop for every child. But once again, what seems like a smart idea can quickly begin to look outdated. Laptops offer portability, but portable digital assistants (PDAs) and the new generation of ultra mobile PCs (UMPCs) offer greater flexibility, a wider range of classroom applications and longer battery life. Just as importantly, like mobile phones and games consoles, they are hand-held, giving them instant appeal to most young people.

"The ideal piece of kit," says Paul Hopkins, "is an all-in-one that allows children to make notes, take photos and videos, connect to the internet and share information with their classmates. Create. Communicate. Collaborate. That's all it needs."

Easy then. But even for schools that have invested in laptops or PDAs, the communicating bit often proves tricky. Establishing wireless connections in old schools can be difficult because of the thick walls. And it can be just as problematic in new schools, which are often built around steel cages, which tend to interrupt technology signals. In any case, most wireless systems currently struggle to cope if there are large numbers of children online at the same time.

But when schools do achieve the goal of one hand-held computer to every child, backed up by wi-fi, the results can be impressive. Dean Bank Primary School in County Durham has been trialling this model with a single year group for the past two years. Today, the Year 6 pupils are writing poetry on their PDAs. They share their poems electronically with pupils in class, who annotate them with feedback and suggestions, then send them back to the author for re-drafting.

It all happens seamlessly, the technology is second-nature and levels of concentration remain high throughout. This is Paul Hopkins's mantra in action. They're creating. They're communicating. They're collaborating.

The PDAs allow children to produce Word documents, gather data in Excel and put together PowerPoint presentations. At Dean Bank Primary, pupils use them to access the internet and often work with interactive learning websites such as Big Bus and Espresso. The technology goes hand-in-hand with more traditional tasks, helping children to share both sets of skills: the older pupils have recently been working one-to-one with younger children using Raz Kids software to help them with their reading.

"The PDAs have had a huge impact on learning," says Chris Young, the headteacher. "Pupils spend more time on-task, especially the boys. And parents are getting more involved with homework, because they love using the machines."

For teachers, knowing that pupils will have their hand-held devices in every lesson makes it easy to plan PDA-based activities. And as you'd expect, pupils often come up with new ways to make use of their machines. They have even grown adept at sorting day-to-day glitches, without having to queue up for technical support. "They use their PDAs all the time, so they know these machines inside out," says Chris.

The aim now is to give every child at Dean Bank a hand-held computer which they will eventually take with them to secondary school. Financially, that's a challenge - but a Pounds 7,000 E-learning Foundation grant has covered half of this year's bill and parents are being asked to pay the other half, at a rate of Pounds 9 a month over three years.

Despite the fact that Dean Bank is in one of the most deprived parts of the country, every parent has signed up. "That tells you everything," says Chris. "Parents know how important this is and they're prepared to find the money, even if they're on low-income."

Schemes like this show that it's possible to ensure all children have access to technology, not just ones from middle-class families. Similarly, at King James's, Paul Walters was able to kit out pupils who didn't have their own mobile, simply by buying phones off eBay, at an average cost of Pounds 6 each. Much is made of the digital divide between children from rich and poor backgrounds, but perhaps the more significant divide now is between children who attend schools that lead the way on technology, and those stuck in schools that lag behind.

But it's wrong to suppose that all young people are IT literate, just because they've grown up in the digital age. "That's way off the mark," says one technology teacher in West Yorkshire. "Most 14-year-olds come to me with poor word processing skills. They can't add a border or use justification, and they can't organise work properly. Some can't even use bold or underline."

And while nearly all young people are comfortable accessing the internet, they don't always know what to make of the things they find there. By way of illustration, there's a lesson plan where teachers show 13 and 14-year- old pupils three websites. One is about the Second World War, another about Martin Luther King and the third is about Victorian robots. Most children say they find the websites useful, and that they would use them as sources for their project work. In fact, the first site is written by a holocaust apologist, the second by a white supremacy group, and the third is a spoof.

Teachers may sometimes worry that they're being left behind by the pace of development. They may feel excluded by Bebo, or pushed aside by Wikipedia. But when it comes to nurturing the critical and analytical skills that young people need, now more than ever, it's still teachers who lead the way. "The role of the educator is changing," says Paul Hopkins. "It's less about passing on information, because pupils can find that for themselves. The challenge is to help young people turn information into knowledge, and then turn knowledge into wisdom."

The class divide

86 per cent of ABC1 houses have internet access, compared to only 63 per cent of C2DE houses.

Source: Ofcom 2008

Pounds 300m - The amount the Government has pledged to spend on giving computers and broadband connection to the poorest families.

The school divide

More than 40 per cent of schools say their provision of desktops and laptops is not sufficient to deliver the curriculum successfully.

Source: Becta 2008

An increasing number of schools have a 100 per cent wireless network, yet 41 per cent of secondaries have no wireless network at all.

Source: Becta 2008

6:1 Average pupil to computer ratio in UK primaries.

Source: Becta 2008

The age divide

79 per cent of 12 to 15-year-old girls have at least one profile on a social networking site, compared with just 20 per cent of adult internet users.

Source: Ofcom, 2008

5 per cent of schools use social networking as an educational tool.

Source: Becta 2008

95 per cent of 15-year-olds use a mobile phone.

Source: Ofcom, 2008

1 per cent of primary schools and 11 per cent of secondaries allow mobile phones in lessons.

Source: Becta, 2008

82 per cent of children regularly play video games, but only 30 per cent of adults.

Source: Futurelab, 2006

87 per cent of 12 to 15-year-olds are confident of getting the internet to do what they want.

Source: Ofcom, 2008

33 per cent of teachers feel they don't have the technology skills to exploit the technology available to them.

Source: National Foundation for Educational Research, 2008.

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