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Computer learning stalls over key test

A MULTIMILLION pound business in computer-based learning which has spread to half of Scotland's secondaries and more than 200 primaries is described as no more than "promising with limitations" in the first full evaluation north of the border.

Aberdeen City Council's investigation into integrated learning systems (ILS), such as SuccessMaker and RM Maths which help with 5-14 basics, finds strong support among many teachers but concludes that it is too early to judge their value in raising attainment.

The study suggests that it is difficult to separate systems from other developments and that their impact on lifelong learning is "as yet uncertain".

Analysis of the packages, which have cost some Scottish secondaries up to pound;30,000, comes as a prominent British researcher surprised a national conference in Glasgow by advising headteachers to invest in classroom interaction and not computer learning if they want to raise exam results.

Professor Carol Fitz-Gibbon of Durham University questioned heavy investment in programmes such as SuccessMaker, based on evaluations in the mid-1990s in England. Her own study found that packages had little positive effect on achievement. Indeed, pupils who used ILS packages had generally lower grades on external exams than similar groups.

The Aberdeen findings are in line with three earlier British studies and point out that the use of ILS demonstrates "fairly clear gains in learning from those aspects which are rule-based (many aspects of mathematics, some aspects of language such as spelling)". But benefits are "more ambiguous" when it comes to creativity in writing or interpretation in reading.

The city adds: "Integrated learning systems are good at promoting 'steady'

aspects of learning - being methodical, being focused. But they are not generally best suited to offer practice in imaginative or collaborative aspects of learning, although teachers can make best use of these opportunities, here as elsewhere, if given help to identify and realise the opportunities."

A full analysis of several studies five years ago by the technology advisory body Becta found conflicting evidence. David Wood, professor of psychology at Nottingham University, the report's author, told The TES Scotland he accepted Professor Fitz-Gibbon's evidence that there was no proven link to stronger exam performance.

However, Professor Wood added: "Broadly speaking, teachers feel the systems are good. Kids are on task, they are motivated and when people observed them, kids were engaged.

"Maybe the problem is not with the technology but the examinations. Maybe teachers are right and we are measuring the wrong things."

His review emphasised that the potential of ICT depends "critically on how it is used by teachers and schools". He said: "This research does not allow clear-cut advice on purchasing for schools."

Andy Hutt, a spokesman for RM, the company which sells the packages, said that they were increasingly popular with teachers, who were prepared to make a considerable investment in software, training and time. Teachers were seeing benefits in pupil attainment, motivation and behaviour.

"SuccessMaker is particularly effective because it gives teachers a glimpse of where students are having difficulties. It's not just a simple benchmarking of their progress," Mr Hutt said.

In the six years since the earlier studies ILS had improved and it was as "much to do with implementation" - the point echoed in the research.

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