Answers waiting in the wings
For more than 15 years, schools, colleges and universities have been running telecommunications projects and there have been two national projects - the Communications Collaborative Project, run by the National Council for Educational Technology (NCET), and Project Gemini, also managed by NCET but funded by British Telecom. Despite all this activity, at no point has anyone pulled together the conclusions which the projects have reached: there has seemed little enthusiasm to do so, nor any need identified by any national organisation.
Now along comes the hype about the Internet, and suddenly everyone (including the Department for Education) is asking exactly the same question that many of those previous projects have addressed in their own way - what do telecommunications add to teaching and learning?
While none of the projects to date has answered that question fully, they have provided some evidence which provides a starting point for identifying what telecommunications can contribute.
For example, on a simple level, getting pupils to use the telephone to speak to others is a superb means of exploring the differences between speech and writing, promoting a deeper understanding of the nature of Standard English. On another level, it's about giving children access to sources of information which wouldn't otherwise be available. Giving children access to the range of information about the Kobe earthquake which was available on the Internet just hours after the event is not something that many schools would be able to manage without telecommunications.
Many projects have found that allowing pupils to interact with other people using fax machines and electronic mail has provided them with a rich sense of audience and has forced pupils to concentrate not only on their spelling, punctuation and presentation, but also on the precision of their expression. Teachers have also found that when their pupils do collaborate with others using telecommunications, they develop new insights into their work through working with people from different cultural or geographic contexts. This is apart from the benefits which many teachers have reported in increased motivation for children who have found their viewpoints appreciated by people whom they've never met.
Teachers have found that telecommunications can provide opportunities for their own professional development. There have been on-line courses for teachers for several years run by a various institutions, and the less formal on-line discussions can provide expertise to enhance many lessons.
Given that these conclusions arise from real classroom experiences, an interesting question to ponder is why the use of telecommunications is still limited. Cost is the most frequently-cited reason. However, it's often the case that much attention is focused on cost rather than value. For example, it's easy to work out the cost of enabling children to collaborate with others around the world: it's about 4.2 pence for three minutes (a local, daytime call to an Internet provider). But how do we calculate the value of connecting children with remote audiences?
The possibility of actually saving money has generally gone unrecognised. Many schools are happy to invest in newspaper CD-Roms at over Pounds 100 a time, when the archives of 28 newspapers, some going back to 1984, are available on-line from FTProfile on Campus 2000. These newspapers (including The TES) are all searchable simultaneously for the cost of a local call: the cost of two newspaper CD-Roms will pay for about 100 hours of local calls.
There are other issues which are often raised, including the location of the communications equipment, its management and supervision and its impact on teaching and learning in classrooms. Most of these issues have been explored by teachers involved in previous projects.
Perhaps the Department for Education's consultation exercise on the information superhighway will provide some flesh on these bones - something that has been lacking for some time. Perhaps, also, some of those companies now queuing up to sell Internet access will devote some of their resources to bringing together what is already known. It's good to see, for example, that BT will be publishing Teaching and Learning with the Internet, a publication designed to explore some of these issues in a constructive, practical manner, in advance of the launch of its BT CampusWorld service.
Whatever else happens, though, one thing is clear: unless teachers are aware of the real benefits that telecommunications can offer and have time to learn about their application in the classroom, no amount of consultation or information will be sufficient to make their use widespread in schools.
* Phil Moore is an educationconsultant who can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org