All aboard the ICT train...;Opinion;Education

15th May 1998 at 01:00
2002, the nation's 450,000 teachers are expected to be computer literate. pound;230m of Lottery money will be spent on training. But there is a danger that the cash could be wasted, says Jack Kenny

HERE are 450,000 teachers in Britain. It has been decided that they must all have information and communications technology training by 2002, paid for by pound;230 million of Lottery funds. At least pound;100 million is being invested in hardware and a networking infrastructure, and a further pound;23 million on multimedia laptop computers for heads. If the grand plan fails, that is an awful lot of money zapping into cyberspace.

So in approximately 1,400 days we should have every teacher trained to the standards being laid down for today's newly qualified staff, which take account of the technological demands of the modern classroom. Frankie Sulke, head of teacher training at the Teacher Training Agency, says: "Out there are hundreds of thousands of teachers ready to welcome the fact that we are going to update their knowledge, understanding and skills in this area." Alan Kay, the noted US educationist, warned of the dangers of mass training of teachers. If they each had a few days of piano teaching, he said, you would have thousands of teachers who could play "Chopsticks".

The agency is determined to avoid the "sheep dip" approach - everyone receiving the same training. Everyone will have their needs assessed. Big businesses such as BT and ICL are bidding for the job, as well as firms and organisations within education such as RM and the OU.

The past two years have seen three surveys into teachers' attitudes to technology. The most recent, from BT and Lancaster University, contradicts figures from the surveys by the Technology Colleges Trust and by HMI. The BT figures suggest that teacher confidence is much higher than anyone had suspected. Don Passey of Lancaster University points out that his is a small sample and suggests that the conflict between the surveys emphasises the need for rigorous investigation to determine what is the present state of teachers' ICT competence. Only then will the planners know what needs to be achieved by 2002.

One concerned observer noted: "Large and small organisations which have had no prior commitment to education are salivating about the sums involved and claiming that they are the experts in training and can solve all the problems. There is a danger of short-term exploitation unless the Government ensures appropriate track records and quality assurance. It is not enough to have training companies who will say 'Let's go and train everybody on Word and Excel'. It has to be people who understand the classroom and the curriculum area and ICT."

Mike Rumble, chairman of NAACE, the ICT advisers' and inspectors' association, welcomes the interest and involvement of industry. "Much of the interest has come from those who have had a long-term investment and interest in ICT in education. We would urge those parts of the ICT industry which have had very little interest in education in the past, or which have no long-term commitment to education in the future, not to seek to exploit this initiative for their own ends I " T is particularly important that wheels are not re-invented. Frankie Sulke asserts that one of the mistakes in the past was the concentration on skills training rather than on curriculum and pedagogic training.

One experienced adviser made the point that "it would be wrong to convey the message, or make the assumption, that all teachers are ignorant of the role of ICT in their teaching and unskilled in its use. Much has been achieved over the past few years and much evidence has been gathered of the benefits to be gained in the use of new technologies in teaching and learning."

From January the training needs of all teachers will be assessed. After that, schools will eventually receive an allocation of Lottery money, approximately pound;500 per teacher, which they can spend with approved training organisations. Training will start next April.

Alan Teece of ICL is concerned about a lack of consistency if a number of training organisations are involved. He envisages that someone is going to say: "Teacher A is a geography teacher and needs to use ICT in geography up to key stage 4." Organisation A might do it one way, organisation B might do it another way. The quality could vary enormously.

"There is a danger, as always with such specific initiatives, that teachers, local education authorities and schools will see this as meeting all their ICT training and development needs for the next decade," warns Mike Rumble of NAACE. "This is not the case."

There is reason for pessimism, however. The Stevenson Report on ICT in education, commissioned by Labour when in opposition, made three very clear recommendations, and none have been achieved so far: tax breaks for teachers to buy their own machines; websites on the Internet where teachers can exchange, improve and swap ideas about software; and, most important, an independent review of the examination system in the light of the changes in ICT.

This opportunity is not going to be repeated. It is important to get it right. A number of concerns have been expressed: the Teacher Training Agency's "enthusiasm" for ICT is very recent; the conservatism of the British teaching force may well have been underestimated; the conservatism of the curriculum itself could be a barrier; real accreditation is required rather than certificates from commercial companies; training should have reference to the world outside school.

Finally, the level and quality of school resources must be sufficient to sustain increased use by most members of the staff. We have got it wrong in the past by installing hardware without training. Might the future mistake be to give training without hardware?

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