A truly personal computer

7th January 2000 at 00:00
There is nothing a teacher can do on a PC that won't be helpful in the

classroom, says Stephen Heppell. And that's why they should each receive free - and appropriate - equipment

BACK in the 1960s there were many teachers who regar-ded owning a TV as a Faustian pact where the cathode ray tube might distract them from their books. Now, however, most teachers do not seek to avoid new technology, but hope to harness the opportunities that it offers for teaching, for their own learning and for communication with their colleagues around the world.

For most UK teachers that makes owning and mastering information and communication technology's principal tool a priority. They need help urgently.

Teachers' need for their own personal computers has been clearly explained a number of times since the Stevenson report, Information and Communication Technology in UK Schools, came out before the last election.

Although almost every recommendation of that hugely influential report is being implemented, national action to support individual ownership by teachers of personal computers has been disappointingly slow to arrive. It is time for progress. A good start is a reaffirmation of just why teachers need computers.

Firstly, confidence. Teachers are bright, and computers get easier to use annually, but there is no substitute for quiet private time getting comfortable with the workings of a computer.

This matters not because teachers would otherwise be shown up by whiz-kids in the classroom (indeed the opposite is true: research confirms that children's ability to race ahead of adults is a great motivator for young learners) but because, without that confidence, teachers are less ambitious for the challenges that they set for their wired students.

Why should teachers get this special treatment? Surely they might do irrelevant things with their computers, wasting taxpayers' money?

Not so. Unlike lawyers or doctors or accountants, there is nothing that a teacher can do on a computer that is not helpful; they need to explore all the activities that engage their young students' minds whether they be logged into chat rooms, solving arcade game puzzles or wrestling with the typography of publishing their football fanzine.

Sharing all this experience helps teachers to see how they might harness the extraordinary capabilities that children are developing as their confidence with ICT grows. Without that inight our children's confidence is wasted or frustrated.

Thirdly, without a guarantee of 100 per cent ownership of computers, much of the training and professional development of the teaching profession is in danger of being deflected to meet the short-term needs of simply operating the technology rather than the medium-term needs of harnessing it for creative curriculum progression - how to make the printer work rather than understanding how the computer changes the process of creative writing. Giving teachers a computer at home solves the first problem (they teach themselves) thus allowing space, time and resources to explore how the technology can be best used.

Fourthly, children are wonderfully imaginative with ICT but they need teachers who can understand the processes they have adopted and unpack their mistakes. Only by personal ownership can teachers begin to understand enough to support those processes and offer formative advice about how to proceed.

One very real danger for national policy is that without this understanding teachers will waste the power of ICT and imagine that computers should not become great learning tools but be teaching machines instead, to drill knowledge into children in a nightmare and wasteful Brave New World scenario.

But make no mistake, a campaign to ensure that all teachers have their own computers should not deteriorate into a campaign to ensure that they all get the same computers.

Different teachers have widely different needs - music teachers, art teachers, infant teachers, special education teachers all have needs and predilections which must be respected by allowing them the fullest and widest choice of equipment.

Indeed as we have now entered an era when a wide variety of equipment will deliver Internet connections to many teachers - from set-top boxes and network PCs through to pocket digital assistants and wireless networked portables - that diversity is certain to increase healthily rather than diminish.

Attempting to standardise would leave many teachers dissatisfied, alienated and stuck with the wrong kit - the very opposite of the result intended.

Professor Stephen Heppell chairs the ICT standing sub-committee of the Department for Education and Employment's Standards Task Force. He is director of Ultralab, the learning technology research centre. The Stevenson report can be found at http:rubble.ultralab.anglia.ac.ukstevenson

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