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Succeeding in style

Angela McFarlane reports from the Cal 95 conference

No one uses the term CAL, computer-assisted learning, much any more. When the CAL conferences started back in the early Eighties it was all the rage. However, it would be a mistake to think that the CAL conference community is stuck in the past. This is a group of people who are actively engaged in an attempt to wring the last drop of educational advantage out of the use of information technology. And given the high-tech nature of the world the students currently in schools, colleges and universities are going to live and work in, this is reassuring.

The CAL conferences have traditionally been places where the various sectors of school and higher education, with representatives from business and industry, come together. Held every other year, CAL 95 took place last week at Queen's College in Cambridge. The theme was "Learning to Succeed", and the papers, posters and invited presentations included many accounts of IT-based approaches with proven benefits in terms of enhanced learning outcomes.

The examples came from primary, secondary, further education and higher education classrooms. They ranged from the use of dynamic graphs in key stage 2 to advanced astronomical simulations with undergraduates, and from General National Vocational Qualifications core skills to the epistemologies of Wittgenstein.

There really was something for everyone, whether you were interested in improving practice from the highly practical point of view or the deeply philosophical. Of course one of the luxurious aspects of attending a conference like this is that it gives you an opportunity for a bit of time and space to think about both.

This was a big conference, over four days. There were getting on for 100 separate contributions. For most of the time there were at least five parallel sessions. One of the consequences of so much choice and diversity is that no two people go to the same conference! At the sessions which had greater relevance to schools in general, or science education in particular, the presentations, questioning and discussions centred not on the technology but on the issues related to learning. There were sometimes heated debates about what was really important when trying to facilitate effective learning. Not once was there a discussion about the mechanics of the technology, or even a question come to that.

This left a strong sense that information technology in education is finally coming of age. Computers are no longer the object of study, even for the education research community. They are assuming their rightful place as tools in the classroom. However, as John Gardner, of Queen's University School of Education, Belfast, reminded us in his invited presentation, this is no time for complacency. While there are pockets of excellence, the reality in most schools is still very different. Especially in primary, schools are under-resourced in terms of hardware, software, time and training.

The real tragedy of this was brought home by the contrasting picture of the potential of an IT-rich learning environment shown by David Eastwood, headteacher of Northfield Academy, Aberdeen, and the keynote presentation from Owen Lynch, head of Orgill Primary, Cumbria. In five years, Orgill has moved from an almost IT-free school to a situation where children have access to computers on demand, and the developing skill to make judicious use of them.

One aspect of the school IT policy which is interesting is that they offer an RSA certificate in IT to parents through evening classes. They have since employed five such qualified parents as resource managers in the school. This is just one of the ways the school has won a place in the hearts and minds of the community it serves, in a severely needy area.

A very different perspective on the relationship between work, home and society was offered by Theresa Barnett, head of management learning at the Trustee Savings Bank, who gave the opening keynote address. She spelt out some of the demands which will be placed on people working in the first half of the next century.

The ability to interpret and analyse personal educational and training needs, and to access electronically the resources you need, as you need them, will make the difference between having an income and not. You got the feeling that a child who had been to a school like Orgill would have a definite advantage in terms of survival in this highly competitive information jungle.

Anyone who had any doubts about the technology's ability to service the complex electronic information networks in which the 21st century workers would operate, must have held a different view after listening to Fred Daly, the director for technology evaluation at the National Council for Educational Technology. He gave a clear exposition of the underlying sums which showed that, within a decade or less, the multimedia information supply demands of every individual on the planet could be met several times over. He suggested that the implications of this are likely to be as far reaching, and in many ways as unpredictable, as the development of the microprocessor was in 1978.

Unfortunately, despite widespread publicity through Acorn Computers, one of the sponsors, and a special, reduced day rate for teachers, the only school teachers present at the conference were invited speakers. I say unfortunately because the further and higher education, and education research communities who were well represented among the 200-plus delegates could learn a lot from schools when it comes to making effective use of educational technology. And there was much which was thought provoking and of interest to teachers on offer. Hopefully CAL 97 will have more success at attracting teachers as presenters and delegates. If you are doing something interesting with IT, and feel it is making a difference to the children's learning, think about coming along and sharing it in 1997.

Angela McFarlane is a director of the IT unit at Homerton College, Cambridge and was a member of the CAL 95 management committee.

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