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Lending for learning

If each student has a computer to use at home while they are training, they should be literate in IT when they start teaching.

Michelle Selinger reports on how an OU experiment worked

How do you support student teachers' confidence and competence with IT? This is question concerns everyone running teacher-training courses. For the Open University, the problem is particularly acute because students are studying to become teachers in their own homes rather than in an institution.

The OU launched its 18-month, part-time, distance-taught PGCE in February 1994. The course provides access to a teaching qualification for a large number of potential primary and secondary teachers who for whatever reason are unable to attend a full-time course. Many have dependants or full-time jobs.

One of the statutory requirements for newly qualified teachers is to have some competence in IT. The challenge for the OU was to develop this in student teachers many of whom were over 30 and had had little or no access to computers when they were at school and college even if they had used IT extensively in their careers.

Asking partner schools to support IT development was not really the solution, because the range of provision and the level of use in IT in schools varied enormously. In any case, given all the other demands on student teachers in 18 weeks on school placements, it was unlikely that they would get sufficient opportunities to experience IT first hand in schools. Installing computers in OU regional centres was a possibility - but this would have defeated the object of providing new opportunities for a group of potential teachers to study at home.

So the decision was taken to lend each student a computer for the duration of the course and to put it in their homes. The computers would then become the property of the partner schools, which would take possession of the machines at the end of the course as a part-payment for their involvement in training.

The investment was justified on three grounds. Personal access to a computer would develop students' IT capability by supporting the development of personal confidence and competence in the use of computers. It would encourage students to consider the implication of IT for teaching and learning. And it would allow students to communicate electronically with their peers and course tutors.

After a tendering procedure, the computer selected was an Apple Macintosh complete with ClarisWorks, a printer and a modem with FirstClass, an electronic communication software package, sent at a later date. Students were encouraged to write their assignments on word processors from the outset, and this became a compulsory requirement for the final two essays. They were also sent two discs of stylised ClarisWorks templates for observation schedules, lesson plans and evaluations, which students could either print out and write on or wordprocess.

It has all worked very well indeed. In students' evaluations and monitoring there is solid evidence of a substantial increase in competence and confidence in using computers. The number of students in the first group to take the course who felt "very confident" about using a computer nearly doubled during the course. Perhaps of more significance, those completely lacking in confidence dropped from 215 at the beginning to only seven at the end. "One of the unexpected joys of the course was the loan of a computer and modem for the duration of the course," was a typical comment.

One student reported that he was put in charge of IT for his department while on final school experience and another felt it was her confidence with IT that was a significant factor in obtaining her first teaching post.

Early in the course several students reported how scared they had been to open the box containing the computer, let alone take it out and plug it in. But they are now surprised and delighted with their new-found skills. There have been several requests for details and advice about computer purchase and a substantial number of students have persuaded the schools to let them buy their machines rather than part with them. They were set several tasks to encourage them to use computers in school and to help them consider the pedagogical implications. These included using and evaluating software, teaching pupils using computers, and exploring the pros and cons of teaching and learning with IT and without it. All students were given written materials on the use of IT both in general and in their specialist subject area.

Students at the OU traditionally work alone at home and are frequently the only student teachers in their school. They have limited access to the peer support available in face-to-face training courses; so the electronic conferencing facility was set up using FirstClass software.

The electronic communication model mirrors the course structure. Students have their own personal mailbox for e-mail and a number of different forums or conferences found on a "virtual campus" where they can join in discussions on a whole range of topics. There is a "lobby" where all staff and students can communicate across phase, subject and region. Students have access to a closed conference with their tutor and 14 other students; a regional conference for the geographical area in which they are based; a subject conference of which there is one for each of the seven secondary subject lines and a primary conference.

All students are able to access the subject and primary conference, which encourages cross-curriculum discussions as well as cross-phase discussions.

Of course, there is also a fun side - a "general chat" area in which students can discuss any topic, educational or not, and a "virtual pub", where almost anything goes. As one student wrote: "The modem link allowed me to tap into a vast information and support network. The distance in this so-called distance learning course shrank to nothing as anything from a friendly chat to a deep discussion with a subject specialist was available via my keyboard. The only casualty was my telephone bill."

Many students stay on-line as alumni sharing thoughts, ideas and resources as well as debating educational issues as they enter their first teaching posts.

"Using FirstClass as an alumnus has been like an extension of the PGCE course," says one. "There is a constant supply of help and ideas as well as an exchange of views about every issue that faces any teacher, not just students and newly qualified teachers.

"Most of my colleagues at school are only available to me for short times during the day, at lunch or break when they are not involved with other things; so learning from their experience is quite difficult as few have the time to spare and others have no inclination to let others benefit from their experience.

"I only have to log on to benefit from the best practice in schools and educational establishments around the country. I can gain motivation and insight that other teachers cannot get."

* Michelle Selinger is a lecturer ineducation at the Centre for Research in Teacher Education at the OU.

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