Digital dazzle for the trainees

Would-be college lecturers are reaping the benefits of e-learning - whatever their specialist subject. Martin Whittaker reports

Gail Robertson can't see that there will be much need for the latest digital technology when she begins teaching a class of adults in September.

The 42-year-old part-time ceramics technician has just gained a further education teaching qualification. In a practical subject such as hers, the phrase "white heat of technology" applies more to operating a kiln than an interactive whiteboard.

"If I were a whizz-kid, I suppose there are ways in which it would be helpful, but I wouldn't particularly use it with my subject," she said.

Yet new technology certainly played its part in her training. Gail and fellow trainee teachers at Kingston College, in Surrey, made digital videos of each other's lessons which they could then observe over the internet.

The college has also built up a collection of video footage demonstrating good classroom techniques in a range of specialist subjects. Trainees can also view these online.

Ms Robertson, who has completed a PGCE in post-compulsory education, says online lesson observations allowed her to see good classroom practice that was relevant to her subject.

"One of the people who did the video was a ceramics expert doing some teaching," she said. "That was interesting for me because I haven't seen someone doing that since I was at art college."

Kingston College's trainee teachers were part of a national project designed to evaluate the impact of electronic learning on post-16 initial teacher training. The Government wants to see more effective use of new technology in improving teaching. It also wants to ensure that the people training the teachers are themselves up to speed with technology.

Research by the then Learning and Skills Development Agency and Sheffield Hallam university in 2004 found that lack of time, insufficient infrastructure and not enough support were the main barriers to boosting the use of technology in teaching and learning.

Staff wanted more training and access to examples of good practice. In response, the Learning and Skills Network has run a project involving nine colleges which have all worked to develop a particular area of teacher training using e-learning.

The project aimed to find out what works and what support and resources are needed. The result is a new resource, "E-ffective Teaching", produced by LSN for teacher-trainers and staff development managers.

Materials are designed to comply with new professional standards for teachers, tutors and trainers in colleges. From next year, all new entrants to FE teaching will have to be trained to a standard that gives them qualified teacher status.

The project found wide disparities in new technology skills and experience among trainees and trainers - in some cases the trainees had more knowledge than the trainers.

Michelle Jennings, the project manager, said the new resources are deliberately aimed at "non-techies".

"We didn't want it to be just for people who feel comfortable with technology," she said. "The whole purpose of this publication was to target people who hadn't used e-learning very much in their practice."

Kingston College filmed its own staff and teachers from the adult education service to create a library of exemplar teaching. It also paired trainee teachers and got them to film whole lessons, giving them and their mentors lesson observation on demand over the internet.

This allowed it to overcome the difficulty of matching the time of their lesson with the availability of a subject specialist to observe it. Andrew Williams, project manager, said: "Unlike teacher education in the school sector, where you have a limited number of curriculum areas that you are training people for, we have this huge diversity of curriculum. That's a real challenge for the whole reform agenda for teacher-training in the learning and skills sector."

The college said the project has had a big impact on teacher training, although it admits that it took time to master the production of digital videos.

One tutor said: "One of the key lessons we have learned is how important it is to address the technical issues very carefully so that the project doesn't become all about technology. It has freed us to focus on what really matters - improving teacher education and supporting teacher-trainers."

South Birmingham College has also developed a range of online resources for teacher-training, with results which its project report describes as astonishing.

Trainees themselves developed a keen interest in e-learning, while staff who had been less confident with technology found they were able to use the resources at their own pace.

More than half of the college's courses, including much of its teacher-training, are undertaken off-campus. With the help of new broadband network connections, the college has given those trainee teachers more ready access to resources online.

Greta Barnett, who managed the project at South Birmingham, said it has also encouraged those already teaching to use technology skills they didn't realise they could apply to their subject.

"It switched on a lightbulb," she said. "For us, it's pushed it out beyond teacher-training and into the classroom."

The "E-ffective" teaching pack will be available in August.To obtain a copy contact LSN Information Services on 0207 297 9144, or email: Learning and Skills Network also runs an e-learning blog. See

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