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Made for success

A new computer-based approach to teaching the three Rs could have an enormous impact on British education. Arnold Evans reports.

It might seem too good to be true: a software package that motivates pupils, that tells the teacher exactly how well they are performing - and has proved in trials to be effective.

But a report to be released next Wednesday at the Bett 96 technology show at Olympia, London, is certain to make these claims for Integrated Learning Systems (ILS). This computer-based approach to teaching the 3Rs (imported from the USA) could have an enormous impact on British education, and face schools with difficult decisions about how to make the best use of their computers.

The report, which is the result of an evaluation of ILS carried out on behalf of the National Council for Educational Technology (NCET) for the Department of Education and Employment, is expected to confirm the provisional findings announced after the first phase of the study. Pupils at key stages 2 and 3 who used ILS to supplement their work in maths for only six months made gains of up to 20 months. Even more surprising, they did so by using the system for only 30 minutes a day. The report is also expected to establish that ILS works across the ability range; that pupils don't need to remain on an ILS programme to sustain the improvements made; that it appeals to both sexes; that it's particularly effective with the least and the most able pupils; that it improves pupils' self-esteem; and that it can play a significant role in the education of pupils with special educational needs (SEN) and those for whom English is a second language.

However, the researchers are not likely to give ILS their unqualified approval. In practice, the startling improvements in maths are not matched by the results in English in which pupils who used ILS generally fared no better than those in parallel control groups. Furthermore, ILS is only as good as the software that pupils have at their disposal. A British system, Global Maths (published by GLS), although geared specifically to the requirements of the national curriculum, has proved less reliable and less effective than its American equivalent, SuccessMaker (marketed in this country by Research Machines). Indeed, the high standards in maths have been achieved exclusively by pupils using SuccessMaker.

It might rely on the latest multimedia technology, but the philosophy that underpins SuccessMaker is decidedly old-fashioned. It works on the assumption that children will make the best progress when work has been individualised to meet their precise educational needs, and pitched so as to give them a continuing sense of success.

The child dons headphones (the package relies heavily on spoken instructions) and, after an initial diagnostic test, is given appropriate tuition and set a series of computer-generated tasks. These range from the ordinary sums that a teacher might chalk on the blackboard to colourful multimedia presentations which place mathematical concepts in a series of different contexts. Sophisticated management software monitors how the child performs and uses the data to determine what level of difficulty the next task should be. The work is intensive, and demands levels of concentration which children aren't expected to sustain for sessions longer than 30 minutes. They do, however, need to use the system regularly, preferably at least three times a week.

At the end of each session, the computer gives the child an instant report on the progress he or she has made, and provides the teacher with a detailed analysis of the child's performance. This highlights strengths and weaknesses in 16 key areas (addition, multiplication etc), compares the child with others in the group, and, by identifying the questions that most pupils are getting wrong, offers the teacher invaluable insights into which aspects of the syllabus need particular attention in the traditional class lesson.

Since all this is done automatically, pupils can - in theory, at least - use SuccessMaker without it making any extra demands on the teacher. It is this, above all else, which gives it the edge over Global Maths. Although the British system has a bank of graded assignments (albeit not nearly as many as SuccessMaker), it's the teacher who has to decide which ones the pupil should do and who has to analyse the results afterwards.

This, of course, creates extra work - so much so in fact that many teachers involved in the evaluation resorted to creating generalised programmes of study that catered for groups of pupils rather than exploit the full potential of ILS by individualising the work.

Although SuccessMaker functions without the intervention of the teacher, the teacher's role is crucial if the system is to be used to best advantage. Pupils respond best when ILS isn't seen as something separate from the mainstream lesson. They need to feel that the teacher values the time they spend at the keyboard, and even if not personally involved, understands the nature of the work they are being asked to do.

Needless to say, ILS is expensive. According to the NCET, a network of only 15 work stations running Global Maths would cost nearly Pounds 40,000 to set up. SuccessMaker would cost Pounds 20,000 more. Schools could economise by simply devoting existing computers (providing they have four megabytes or more of memory) exclusively to ILS. But, of course, to do so would make a nonsense of an educational philosophy (one that's enshrined in the national curriculum) which insists that the primary reason for having new technology in schools is so that children have ample opportunity to learn to be masters of it. This is a far cry from the image of solitary children, isolated by headphones, obediently doing exactly what the computer tells them to do. Both approaches could easily co-exist - or at least they could if schools aren't forced by budgetary constraints into having to choose between them.

If ILS is as good as trials have shown, the Government needs to find ways of financing its widespread use. The sums won't be difficult - but they will involve some very large numbers.

ILS Evaluation Project-Phase 2, published by NCET, Millburn Hill Road, Science Park, Coventry CV4 7JJ. Tel: 01203 416994

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