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Teach the teacher

ICT is changing, and sometimes swapping, the roles of teachers and pupils, according to research at Green College, Oxford University.

Celina Chan, a visiting scholar from Hong Kong, has produced a paper titled ICT and the Liberation of Learning. She found that technology has altered the way students learn and the way teachers teach. "ICT turns the process of acquisition of knowledge upside down," she declares. "For the first time, the learner takes over the stage."

Chan observed that pupils are using technology to regain control over their own learning to the point where teachers are left to act as "facilitators". The nature of IT requires the user to demand the information, constructing and reinventing it until they become the author. "This is possible because the computer does not judge. It has a levelling effect as everybody - whether able or incompetent - can engage in the same process of exploration, testing out and modifying ideas. It generates non-judgemental, fast and reliable feedback. The learner becomes more experimental. He learns by "teaching" the computer. The learner is now empowered."

Meanwhile, the computer takes over the mundane, technical aspects of gathering information and leaves the pupil more time and effort to think. As the paper summarises: "Learning now moves from teacher-centred to learner-centred; from absorbing material to learning how to learn; from mass learning to customised learning."

But as the paper explores, the shift in power is not clear because the teacher literally and figuratively holds the key to the computer room door. Teachers still plan the lessons, assign terminals and set instructions; schools choose which software and hardware to buy, and organise timetables to limit usage; access to undesirable websites can be blocked. Children still need teachers to provide structure and boundaries.

In some cases, given the number of children developing superior computer skills at home - an exercise every teacher cannot afford in terms of money or time - the students end up teaching the teacher. "If the children's skills are better, this will initiate changes in the relationship between learner and teacher," says Chan. "Learners feel empowered and will be more motivated to learn. Teachers discover that they can and have to learn to improve themselves to communicate. This creates opportunities instead of problems."

Chan believes the change in the learner-teacher relationship is beneficial for everyone involved in ICT "because learners know best what, how, when, where and at what pace they want to learn. If learning is lifelong, there should not be artificial boundaries to force them to conform. Another important thing is if they have the freedom of choice, all other parties in the market will have to compete to bring about the best service and solution. This willencourage changes and improvement in the most efficient way."

One example - the learning grid - Chan regards as more economic than educational, aimed to equip young people with the skills that will make the UK more productive and competitive. "The Government has the determination, money and infrastructure laid to implement ICT in education. However, some local school authorities and teachers or even parents may not be ready to give up their authority and control over education," she said. "Tradition and taking pride in that tradition of elitism and exclusivity, in a way, obstruct the desire to change. The implementation of ICT in education is a liberation from tradition and a move towards freedom, democracy and market economy. I am not sure how much the UK society is willing to embrace this."

Chan rates the current impact of ICT in schools as "minimal", with students examined on the same content, and teachers remaining in control. She attributes this lack of progression to teachers' scepticism about the benefits of using new technologies, largely caused by their lack of skills and, therefore, confidence. As a result, schools will be left behind, she warns, until educators recognise ICT as the new media of the 21st century.

The paper concludes: "Technology is only a means to an end. In order to ensure ICT as a truly liberating force for learning, the open and critical mind of man should play the ultimate part."

A mother of three children and a former English teacher, Chan treasures education as an important tool to bring about change and improvement in society and she sees ICT as the catalyst: "I have seen my two sons suffer under the Hong Kong education system, where the teachers, schools and education department have the ultimate authority to decide what and how the children should learn. Creativity and the interest in learning are stifled."

With IT education starting to be pushed in Hong Kong, Chan was interested in learning from the British system about potential opportunities and problems. "The main message for teachers is that they put too much pressure on themselves because they thought they held the final key to knowledge," she says. "In the world of Internet, knowledge is transparent and interactive. Teachers learn as much from their students as their students learn from them. Their role is more of a guide to stimulate their children to learn, and encourage them when there are problems and to give them directions when they are lost."

Celina Chan researched her paper as part of a project under the Reuters Foundation Programme, which provides three-month fellowships for journalists from around the world. She is now assistant general manager of Next Media in Hong Kong and is responsible for the content development of its group website which is in Chinese

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