Closing the digital divide

23rd March 2007 at 00:00
John McAleenanis managing director of IT solutions and services company, Scotsys

Ask any 10-year-old about the net, email, chatrooms or MSN messenger and chances are they will tell you all you need to know.

But ask their parents or, perhaps more significantly, their teacher and you may not get quite such an informed answer. In fact, for the first time ever, many of our children are going into the classroom more informed about a subject than their teachers.

That issue has been brought into stark relief with the views being expressed by the Scottish Executive about the benefits of play-based learning for primary children. Although at first glance this may seem a move away from modern technology and back to classroom basics, that is not the case.

A further move away from one-to-many traditional teaching styles, this development is being underpinned by improved technology - whether through interactive software, electronic whiteboards or tailored learning material, delivered over computer networks.

In the classroom, that threatens to put yet another technological barrier between the children, who feel at home in the environment, and teachers, who do not. If that seems a little difficult to believe, bear in mind the internet has only been in existence for some 20 years. Many of today's teachers grew up, were educated and completed their training without any introduction to new technology and the internet revolution.

This is the so-called digital divide. And, instead of getting narrower, it is growing wider. At the end of their day, pupils go home and log in. Few teachers have time.

In education, the situation is different. Few teachers will have a computer or laptop supplied and supported by their employer specifically for their use. When they do log on, perhaps on their home computer, they are unlikely to be using the same software, so familiarity remains a barrier.

A key challenge for the educationists is to bring teachers up to speed with the rapidly evolving IT environment. That way, they can remain in the driving seat and be able to channel their charges' enthusiasm and enhance their educational experience.

However, that goal is frustrated by the way computer networks are used in schools, where Apple Macs or PCs are allocated on the basis of the number of pupils. The minimum tends to be 1.8 computers per average primary classroom, or 5.3 per secondary. Teachers do not figure in the equation.

The typical school network will have common or "pooled" machines - laptops or desktops - with pupils and teachers able to log in and access their "home" directory or folders. Only senior managers and managers are likely to have dedicated machines. For most secondary teachers, that can mean using a series of different computers as they move from classroom to classroom.

Only by abandoning this strategy and giving teachers access to the resources they require, when and where they need them, will this situation improve. Professional development, a dedicated computer and a modern approach to school network administration are all essential if teachers are to have the best chance of closing the digital divide and staying ahead of the class.

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