"Just one positive experience with ICT can turn their heads and help them find a new direction in their lives." So says Cath Dyson of the women she teaches, women who were unaware of their talents and never imagined they would be working with ICT. Today they are consulting on computing strategy, designing websites and coaching others in the use of technology, their skills and confidence boosted in Dyson's classroom.
Dyson is ICT information officer at the Women's Electronic Village Hall (WEVH) in Manchester, which provides women with access to the electronic world. For her success in training women to teach ICT in the voluntary sector, Dyson was awarded the post-16 subject teaching prize in this Year's ICT in Practice Awards, organised by the British Educational Communications and Technology Agency and sponsored by The TES.
Dyson first realised the power of ICT 10 years ago. While studying in Manchester, the politics and sociology graduate was given her first computer. "I had no idea how to use it," she says. "One of the other students switched it on and pressed a few buttons, but after that I struggled along on my own. I managed to learn word processing, which was a great leap forward. It was great to be able to produce smart-looking documents, but even better was the realisation that I had taught myself how to do it."
Dyson wanted to be involved in community projects and her triumph with technology provided the focus. When a local community centre requested volunteers to teach ICT skills, she signed up.
"I felt I could help people who were faced with a computer for the first time because I had been through the difficulties myself," she explains. "I had built mental models to help make sense of it and they could help me describe what computers did and make the technical bits less scary."
The centre, Chorlton Electronic Village Hall, introduced ICT to people who would otherwise have missed out. And it made Dyson realise what a positive effect ICT could have. "People see ICT as a difficult subject and don't imagine themselves being able to work with it," she says. "So when they learn even the most basic skills their confidence increases dramatically."
Dyson's interest in teaching and learning was nurtured in her one-day-a-week visits to Chorlton, where she revelled in the opportunity to experiment. She went on to take a teacher training course, becoming a freelance ICT trainer with a portfolio of work in the voluntary sector.
Five years ago she was hired as a full-time member of the team at WEVH, where her experience helped the wide range of women seeking training in ICT. She says her main objective is to help her pupils change their views of themselves. "It is great to leave with a qualification, but ICT isn't just about skills. It is about creating the enthusiasm and motivation to harness these skills in different settings and helping women see themselves as competent and confident."
Her brief at WEVH is wide-ranging, but Dyson won her ICT in Practice Award for her work in introducing and running the Joint Examining Board Certificate in ICT Skills course, which she delivers to women who want to teach ICT in voluntary organisations. One of the keys to success is convincing her students they are capable of being teachers.
"Our research reveals that many women show their partners or friends how to use computers so we are just formalising what is happening in their lives anyway," she says. "Teaching is not about concentrating on your own performance, it's about seeing the obvious; seeing how a learner might be struggling in front of your very eyes."
She stresses that teachers have to be learners too, and practises what she preaches. In 1999 she gained her Master of Education and besides her "day job" at WEVH, Dyson tutors the Open University's "You, Your Computer and the Net" course, delivered almost entirely online. "That has given me new teaching and learning models and I have used some of the people-centred things I do in the class to get the most from students online."
At WEVH, her teaching embraces activities seldom found in ICT classes, such as role-playing and debates, which demonstrate there are alternatives to sitting at the computer or studying handouts. "People learn in different ways and some need to make sense of ICT by having a discussion," says Dyson. "Although this is a technical subject, some areas are open to interpretation and debate - there is no right or wrong way to organise files, for example. I help women explore what it means for them."