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Email an adviser for virtually all the answers

Elizabeth Buie reveals how a pilot online service is plugging the gaps left by the disappearance of the advisory service

EDUCATION ADVISERS have become virtual beings - available at the drop of an email for advice on virtually everything that comes under the headings of literacy, numeracy and science.

Learning and Teaching Scotland has just completed phase one of a Scottish Virtual Advisory Service, aimed at helping teachers to implement A Curriculum for Excellence.

Tommy Doherty, national co-ordinator for the service, explains that the development reflects the shift in the role of advisers to one of quality improvement officers, with an emphasis on supporting and challenging schools and monitoring their performance.

Research by Brian Boyd and Fiona Norris for AEDIPS (the Association of Educational Development and Improvement Professionals Scotland - the successor to the Association of Education Advisers in Scotland) found that continuing professional development for advisers has been one of the losers following their changed remit.

The creation of faculty heads in some schools, replacing subject principal teachers, has also led to charges that teachers have fewer people to call upon for specialist subject advice.

Now, with the development of Glow, the schools online digital service, Mr Doherty envisages new opportunities being developed to complement and supplement the resources from education authority staff.

Phase one, which ran from February to March this year, and is currently being evaluated, involved 100 teachers from four authorities - East Lothian, Midlothian, Dundee and Highland - and six virtual advisers who were assisted by a number of support officers. It covered science, numeracy and literacy for the three to 18 age range.

Phase two, which will run from September to June 2008, will include health and well-being and social subjects, in line with the priority areas identified by A Curriculum for Excellence.

Responses show that there many issues on which teachers want advice. They range from classroom methodology questions to more philosophical issues on approaches to teaching.

The service works by a teacher emailing a question; the project administrator then sends it to the appropriate adviser; and the adviser replies online, possibly after seeking additional information from one of the support officers. The time from the question being submitted to it being answered should be no more than 72 hours.

The reply from the virtual adviser goes into an online community resource, open to the other users of the system. Over time it is hoped that this will build into a wide-ranging searchable database.

The virtual adviser's response can also spark further responses from other users.

Mr Doherty, on secondment to Learning and Teaching Scotland from North Lanarkshire to develop the service, admits that some advisers and quality improvement officers have challenged him with the question: "Are you trying to do me out of work?"

His response is: "No. It is about giving teachers a complementary service.

"Where there is support in a particular local authority, this gives them an added dimension. It is not a recipe for saying: 'We don't need you any more because teachers can get advice online'.

"Online advice is only as good as the people behind it."


The adviser

May Boyd, education adviser with responsibility for science and maths at South Lanarkshire Council, is one of six "virtual advisers" who took part in phase one of the initiative.

A former principal teacher of science at Biggar High, whose specialism was biology, May Boyd has been an education adviser for 11 years.

Her "virtual" work for the Virtual Advisory Service was carried out from home, where she would research the question she had been allocated.

Questions submitted via the VAS were more "particular" than those she tended to receive in her "day job", she said. Health and safety issues were a feature of her work with South Lanarkshire, such as whether it was safe to set up a wormery in a classroom. But questions from "virtual" teachers were more precise, she said.

Ms Boyd believes there is a niche for such a service, but adds that it has to be used responsibly. "The virtual adviser has to have an awareness that we have 32 different approaches to CPD and organisational areas," she says.

"The VAS has to be very careful to select people who would not give advice that might conflict with a directive from the teacher's local authority."

Thus, when consulted about dissection materials, she referred the questioner to the appropriate guidelines, but advised the teacher to check with his or her own education authority to ensure there were no additional local regulations.

There are some issues that a teacher might be reluctant to phone up a QIO about, but submitting them online makes it more anonymous, Ms Boyd feels, even if the reply does come from a named virtual adviser.

"It has encouraged me to begin to look at how ACfE is going to impact on the manner in which science is delivered and assessed and so on, and how I might encourage some staff to work with schools."

The teacher

Lorraine Shepherd, a nursery co-ordinator teacher and chartered teacher, works with a cluster of seven pre-five schools and centres around South Lochaber.

Mrs Shepherd finds the VAS useful because she is geographically isolated in her job. She asked a specific question about how to proceed with one child who, she felt, was drawing in an unusual way.

Colleagues and the internet had not been able to answer her satisfactorily.

However, within 72 hours she received a reply with practical advice and a book reference.

Mrs Shepherd also appreciated the discussion forum and has browsed through it, looking at other teachers' questions in areas beyond pre-school.

She was able to add her comments to another question thread about play across P1-P7, having observed relevant practice on a study course in Adelaide.

"Being able to tap into the expertise that is out there in schools is a great resource," she said. "Being able to contact other teachers in other regions was a real advantage."

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