Creative space

6th January 2006 at 00:00
Interactive technology has an important place in class - but it is still down to teachers to inspire their pupils, says Richard Hodgkiss

It's the start of a new academic year. But for the first time I've walked into a classroom without a box full of assorted paraphernalia - registers, handouts, lesson plans, dry-wipe markers and board rubbers. This would normally be a disaster, but I'm confident because, over the summer, my classroom turned into a 21st century learning environment.

I switch on the computer and smile, satisfied that my AS media students are about to be dazzled by a choreographed symphony of learning technologies.

SMART Boards will interact with the learning platform (also known as the VLE or virtual learning environment) and the PowerPoint presentation.

But wait a minute, no image has appeared on the screen. I nervously check connections, and notice students winking at each other. Several problems become clear: the SMART Board is not plugged in, the network connection has slipped out, and the ceiling mounted projector is not plugged in either.

Five minutes later, after curing the hiccups, the digital future is off and running. I have taken students through the exam board's online specification. I have mind-mapped initial ideas and concepts in relation to the core syllabus using multiple pages on the SMART Board, which have then been printed off and distributed. I have directed students to key websites of various universities. Most interesting of all, I have introduced students to Web CT, one of a number of learning platforms (currently being merged with Blackboard), where I have mapped out the whole year's course on an interactive timetable so that students can go as far ahead as they like or go back over what's been covered.

This is what happened to me early last term - and is likely to be the first experience many teachers have of trying to navigate the new digital terrain. But make sure you persist, because after the initial learning curve and the inevitable frustrations, things do take off.

In my experience, teachers fall between one of two camps on the use of new technology in education. The Luddites know what they're doing, how they're going to do it and won't change; the evangelists evoke visions of online conferencing, student self-assessment and the virtual death of their own role as a face-to-face teacher.

The truth is somewhere in the middle. The Luddites rightly fear the new technologies because they are generally given inadequate training. They also worry that they will be exposed by the razor-sharp young technologists, brought up on wireless gaming and mobile phone "Bluetoothing", who inhabit their classrooms. The evangelists, meanwhile, have a lot to sing about because when they are working the new technologies can make education an exciting process capable of wowing this generation.

In spite of teaching media for more than 10 years, and being used to a range of hardware and software in the classroom, I have been slow to pick up on the use of learning platforms. I went to a couple of training sessions two years ago and was unimpressed. Glorified overhead projection was the description that came to mind when I saw documents with all the boring design acumen of a standard Word file. In the same way that, in the early days, the internet was known as the "world wide wait", so, too, learning platforms failed to live up to their billing. But a couple of years down the line I'm a convert.

Perhaps convert is the wrong term. It smacks of religious fervour. I'm simply embracing the chance to use new tools in order to stimulate students' enthusiasm, and to get the best out of them. Teachers needn't be worried or feel threatened. Tools are only as good as the people who use them - learning platforms won't replace any teachers.

This technology is not as hard to use as we imagine. Most teachers will already be using it - mainly through PowerPoint presentations and directing students to relevant websites. Many classrooms are now equipped with SMART Boards and the training required to use the interactive whiteboard component is negligible - saving multiple page records of lesson activity and discussion, and then using these as a recap in subsequent lessons, or printing and distributing these summaries to students and pupils is now commonplace.

To produce creative and imaginative interactive resources, rather than PowerPoint-style "death by bullet point" slides is a little harder and requires the use of a learning platform. But again, the starting point isn't too onerous - most staff will have the raw materials they need to start in the form of Word documents, Excel spreadsheets and, again, PowerPoint presentations.

What the learning platform does is provide a framework around which all the various teaching aids that interactive technologies can provide are attached. For instance, it is straightforward, if a little time consuming, to construct an interactive scheme of work based on a calendar that allows students to identify the week's work, access course notes, be referred to a website, engage in a discussion group and sit an online test. If it is set up, then the students can access the platform remotely from their computers at home, and can carry on with independent learning. As staff, we can monitor their activity and check who is and who isn't making progress. A great advantage of this is differentiation - students can work ahead of schedule or go back to earlier weeks on the calendar to remind them of things they either missed or don't fully understand.

In my view, good old-fashioned lecturing is still the best way to inspire students and one-to-one, face-to-face contact is still the best way to deal with individual needs. But, in between, learning platforms provide a great space where teachers can use their creativity to combine words, images and sounds in exciting ways to help their students get from A to B on their educational journey.

Richard Hodgkiss is programme leader in media studies at Stanmore Sixth Form College

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