Draw the Net tighter

13th October 2000 at 01:00
Attempts to raise standards have put teaching practices on the back burner, but Internet forums are the ideal way to redress this, says Christina Preston

I FIRST grasped the potential of the Internet in teaching and learning when I was invited to work with the Enlaces team on a World Bank project in Chile just after the restoration of democracy in the early 1990s. The Enlaces team connected all schools through an electronic network of computers, called La Plaza (the town square).

The Pinochet government had neglected state education. The six schools that I visited in the Andes owned no more than five books each. The buildings were stark and unheated. Teachers concentrated on blackboard explanation to large classes. Standards were low and teachers were under-trained and demoralised.

La Plaza was designed as a catalyst for change. The picture of the town square on the screen was a metaphor for a gathering place. Leading teachers were selected to develop learning communities online. They received fast-track training in change management and they were supported online by the central La Plaza team as they worked on raising standards and helping their colleagues to rethink their teaching methods.

A major benefit was access to a vast international library at the click of a mouse. Another benefit was that teachers and pupils who had not had a public voice for 30 years could suddenly publish in La Plaza's virtual newspaper kiosk for a national audience.

The third opportunity that the Chileans highlighted for me was the potential for democratic participation and social inclusion that education networks can provide. All teachers could participate in national and global debate. They were even encouraged to email their minister of education.

But discussion online or in print was not easy to stimulate in a country where freedom of speech had been crushed for so long. My Enlaces colleagues were amazed when they realised that The TES was a weekly publication. "Our profession could not provoke that level of controversy in a year," they declared, "but we'll get there."

"Are you sure you want to?" I replied. "It is easier to get a computer initiative going in a country that is used to dictatorship than in one like Britain where the expression of opinions is normal."

Nearly a decade later the Government has invested pound;1.7 billion in the National Grid for Learning, which claims the same aims as the Chileans: to increase social inclusion, raise standards and transform teaching.

The problem is that government success in promoting standards has resulted n a teaching force which has no public support for transforming teaching practices. The national curriculum, which has raised traditional standards, focuses teachers on outcomes rather than processes. Test results reflect only what can be measured, rather than the more fluid skills - group work, co-operation, joint planning and negotiation.

The National Grid for Learning is not just for information transmission. Web-based environments are perfect for debate, discussion and co-operation. However, building online international learning communities that promote independent, constructive learning is a new science dependent on the right support.

ICT curriculum training for classroom teachers is being implemented with a one-off Lottery payout of pound;230 million - about pound;500 per teacher. On the other hand, the Department for Education and Employment is funding professional development bursaries for teachers to travel.

These DFEE teacher research bursaries encourage teachers to reflect on their classroom practice. But the only scheme that takes account of the needs of the advisory and management community is the Leadership College for headteachers, which has set up an online community called Talking Heads. This gives heads the experience of informal networking and peer mentoring.

Senior managers and advisers desperately need to share knowledge and experience of Internet technologies. Instead of taking the experienced teachers out of school, we can use the Internet to share such skills. New research, Teachers as Innovators, suggests that online teacher-learning communities have a promising future. Fifty per cent of teachers who have had the experience of learning with international peers face-to-face and online are willing to mentor their colleagues for up to 15 hours a month.

Peer e-mentoring should be an essential element in the funding of NGFL professional development. It might also be the way for the profession to build a consensus on future educational standards, and develop a picture of how teaching and examinations can be transformed to match.

No doubt I've generated an army of snipers to hit The TES pages next week. Judge by the thud on your front doormat.

Christina Preston is director of the Oracle Thinking Space Programme, a MirandaNet project based at the Institute of Education, University of London. Visit www.mirandanet.ac.uk to continue this debate, find out about teacher bursaries or experience e-mentoring. You can also read a summary of the report Teachers as innovators: an evaluation of the motivation of teachers to use ICT.

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