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Online ability comes under fire

Teachers can't cope with new technology, a conference was told. John Cairney reports

The ability of schools and colleges to deliver online learning, central to the Scottish Executive's "digital Scotland" policy, was challenged at the country's first e-learning conference last week. But it was met by accusations of "teacher-bashing".

The charge was levelled by Donald Clark, originally from Edinburgh and now chief executive officer of the Brighton-based Epic Group, an e-learning training company, who said that efforts over the past 20 years to get teachers involved in the creation of technology-based training materials had generally failed.

"You need a real skill-set in designing this stuff, a team of people whose life it is to do this, and by and large teachers do not have these skills," Mr Clark said. "This is not to say that they can't get them, but they need to take two or three years out to acquire them. There is almost an arrogance or an assumption that you can just put people in front of this stuff.

"(Teachers) don't understand the team-based nature of production nor the technological knowledge they need to do this correctly. Plucking teachers out of the education system or giving money to FE colleges or secondary schools doesn't work. There have been two decades of research which shows that is the case."

Mr Clark told the conference, organised by Scottish Enterprise, that teachers have an "intrinsic suspicion" of online learning. Fear that they could lose their jobs and weaken their profession results in "a psychological barrier or obstacle".

He also took issue with the traditional lectureclassroom-baed approach to learning. "The fundamental delivery mechanism which is the classroom is a problem because it is pedagogically weak. The challenge for teachers is to become the managers of learning and not the deliverers of knowledge."

But Jackie Galbraith, assistant chief executive of Learning and Teaching Scotland, expressed concern that Mr Clark's comments could lead to teacher-bashing.

She said: "It is important to take the skills that are available. The basic skills of the good teacher are the same as those of the on-line tutor and are there to be mobilised. We need to free up space to allow good teachers to be online tutors. We must use the current skills of teachers or e-learning could be a complete flop."

Her views were supported by Linda McTavish, principal of Anniesland College in Glasgow. She agreed that e-learning presented "a big, big challenge" but said lecturers were being given support, in terms of new qualifications for example.

"We have also experimented with staff trying to create the whole e-learning product, working in partnership with other colleges and people like IBM," Ms McTavish said. "We are realistic about what we can and cannot do.

"The key thing is that we can't do it without teachers. They are our most valuable resource because they are the connection with the learner. We have some excellent examples of good practice with people forging ahead."

* Online courses, including first year degrees, have been successfully piloted to more than 1,000 students by the University of the Highlands and Islands Millennium Institute in a pound;2million programme, it has been announced.

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