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Bid to boost ICT a 'shocking failure'

The Government-directed training of teachers and school librarians in the new technologies has been a "shocking failure", according to a leading expert who has been tracking developments in this field for years.

Tom Conlon of Edinburgh University accuses the education inspectorates in Scotland and England of ignoring a string of serious, predictable shortcomings and suggests that HMI was "inclined to blame the recipients of the training for the problems".

HMI has hit back, however, claiming Dr Conlon was guilty of "poor research" in his analysis of the pound;230 million initiative, funded by the lottery-backed New Opportunities Fund (NOF) throughout the UK.

Writing in the Journal of In-Service Education, Dr Conlon said a major lesson to be learnt from the NOF experience is "how deeply vulnerable is United Kingdom education to 'flagship' projects, especially those that carry prime ministerial authority".

His critique continues: "Despite the fact that the negative outcome was largely predictable, NOF went ahead without significant challenge and a small army of 'experts' was implicated in its failure to deliver."

Among the experts Dr Conlon puts in the dock are the inspectorates north and south of the border. He is unsparing in his criticism of HMI, whose evaluation of the pound;23 million NOF training programme in Scotland was published two years ago. It contained "a large number of assertions and recommendations, the validity of which is very difficult to assess".

Dr Conlon declares: "An important example is the following claim: 'There is clear evidence that the training is having a positive effect in a number of schools.' The problem with this is that neither the number of schools nor the size of the positive effect is indicated and, since the evidence is not made explicit, a statement about its clarity amounts only to an appeal to trust the inspectors."

He then lists a series of HMI comments which he suggests point to a tendency to blame teachers for any shortcomings. Among these are the inspectorate's conclusions that staff limited themselves to narrower training, teachers entered the programme with little grasp of ICT skills and the initiative's success was dependent on teachers' motivation and time management expertise.

Dr Conlon accepts that the apparent removal of HMI from a direct policy-making role could improve the way in which it evaluates policy. But he suggests there is a deep-seated problem with the use of outside experts in driving teachers' professional development in relation to technology which must be resolved.

Teachers, he argues, "generally feel intimidated by the ongoing 'technification' of education in which those with expertise in new technology increasingly and arrogantly assume the right to dominate discussions about pedagogy".

The evidence, Dr Conlon suggests, is that "classroom practice has been not much changed by their NOF training". The link between the development of new technologies in schools and academic achievement, an aim of the programme, is said to be "tenuous".

At least two failures were entirely predictable, according to Dr Conlon's analysis - the lack of resources which meant schools did not have access to broadband networks until after the NOF programme was finished, and unrealistic targets for developing teachers' knowledge and skills.

The failures amount to a "shocking result" for a programme which cost pound;230 million, he says, and gave teachers "an unfortunate and negative first experience of CPD in the area of new technology".

Dr Conlon points to "a gross underestimation of what is in-volved in supporting a pedagogic shift in practice through tech-nology". The mismatch was striking between the extent of the prescribed knowledge and skills (46 target training outcomes) and the brevity of a typical NOF course (around 15 hours in total).

He maintains that HMI "practically concedes that the targets could not seriously be overtaken" - according to its 2002 evaluation, "it is intended that participants will be broadly aware of these (46) outcomes".

Dr Conlon said research is available "which indicates that achieving a change in teaching practice through technology requires a much greater development of knowledge and skill than could be achieved by NOF". One study said at least 80 hours of professional development is necessary before teachers can really begin to integrate technology into their teaching, not 15 hours.

The entire episode, Dr Conlon writes, "underlines the gap between, on the one hand, the rhetoric of the technology industry and its educational promoters and, on the other hand, the reality of teachers' experiences of systems that are difficult to learn and integrate within school contexts".

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