Digital learning all uphill

Despite extensive use of ICT, excellence is 'isolated', HMIE says

A MESSAGE of "a glass half-full, not half-empty" is the inspectorate's summary of the progress of information and communications technology in schools and colleges.

In a report published today, HMIE took the unusual step of launching its report initially on the website of Anderson High in Lerwick - signalling that inspectors are prepared to live up to the kind of innovative approaches they expect from teachers, while also giving high-profile recognition to the cutting-edge work of the school.

Although Graham Donaldson, the senior chief inspector of education, is keen that its report is seen as conveying a positive message of "good steady progress", he said on the website: "We are still only at the foothills of this transformation in learning and teaching."

The struggle to move up from the foothills is apparent in the lack of impact technology has made on changing practice or educational gains.

Despite "extensive and intensive" use of ICT in learning and teaching, the report states, "excellence exists only in isolated pockets".

In his foreword to the report, part of the HMIE Improving Scottish Education series, Mr Donaldson adds: "It is important that ICT is seen as a natural part of good learning and teaching. The challenge is to use it effectively to maximise learning and to enhance and enrich teaching, and that means the practice of the best needs to be widely embraced."

The report particularly emphasises the way in which "capacity building" has taken place to enable ICT to become a more natural part of learning - much increased investment, improvements in infrastructure and bandwidth, more availability of equipment and software, and greater teacher confidence and competence.

In addition, the schools' intranet Glow, with over 800,000 users in one of the world's largest educational networks, would soon act as a single point of access to resources for supporting learning.

Stewart Hay, the deputy head at Anderson High, and a key figure behind its "global classroom" project which links the school with others throughout the world, believes there is a tension between schools and education authorities which will have to be resolved if ICT-based learning is to take off.

"There is a contradiction be-tween the desire of schools to be in the white heat of change and the concern of education authorities to protect and safeguard children in terms of the access they have to the web," he says.

"Between these perfectly laudable and understandable goals, there is a tension."

Mr Hay said the use of advanced learning platforms, such as Moodle and Marratech, would require authorities to allow schools greater freedoms over server control than they have to date. This would be necessary to fulfil his own school's ambition of connecting its pupils to a growing network of learners across the world and become a "global campus".

Mr Hay is an exemplar of one of the main messages in the HMIE report: ICT was most effective in the schools and other centres they visited where the management led the drive to embed technology in the curriculum.

The inspectors also singled out the management of learners and digital content as one of the key factors requiring more attention from schools and centres (the report covers pre-school and community learning as well as schools and colleges). Issues include user accounts, personal file storage, communication tools such as email and discussion forums, and access to appropriate software and ICT-based learning materials.

The confidence of teachers in using ICT was another critical factor, and this was linked to the performance of equipment and technical back-up.

"Where the level of technical support is poor, user confidence that they will have reliable access falls, and learners and teaching staff make far fewer plans to use it," the report states.

The use of ICT by teachers - through animations, simulations, online video and internet sites - enriches teaching "in more than a few cases."

Confidence had improved, but HMIE still found that "too many teaching staff have levels of confidence and competence that are not yet high enough to enable them to make effective use of ICT in their teaching."

As many as nine teachers in a large secondary and one or two in a primary made very little use of ICT in their teaching. "In such schools, the detrimental impact on the learning experience of large numbers of young people was high," the report says.

Mr Hay in Anderson High is one teacher who is happy to admit to learning constantly from his pupils. "That is a healthy environment for me, as a learner and teacher," he adds.

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