Roy Ballam argues the case for developing computer-mediated communication technology.
It's 12.30am and Jemima Miller, a newly-qualified teacher in London, can't sleep. While heating a cup of milk, she switches on the computer, goes on-line and starts to brush up on her food chemistry. All is quiet in the house, yet Mrs Miller is "chatting" to a teacher in Doncaster about classroom management issues and viewing archived lecture materials concerning the coagulation of protein. She prints out an information sheet on "Protein and its functional properties in food products" and two worksheets to use in class.
This isn't science fiction. It's all possible with computer- mediated communication technology (CMC).
Using the Internet as a vehicle to deliver training is an aspect of the National Grid for Learning that will allow teachers and pupils to teach themselves. But why learn on-line, when learning with other people face-to-face in in-service training is stimulating and rewarding?
The no-nonsense answer, of course, is cost. Talk to any colleague about INSET in their school and the picture is often gloomy. Cost, time, travel and supply cover are the culprits. The Design and Technology Association's annual survey of provision for Damp;T in schools confirms this, stating that "the lack of INSET is a matter of the greatest concern, with significant numbers of schools having no real INSET funds and some teachers feeling very concerned about not being able to keep up to date".
So CMC technology may be the answer. But it can create problems of its own. First, some teachers may become increasingly marginalised due to insufficient training in information and communications technology. Second, no one can have access to learning resources that are not being produced. ICT training and funding is on the increase, yet if the content is minimal or does not meet the needs of teachers, who will use the new technology?
A step in the right direction might be an initiative being taken by the British Nutrition Foundation, which is currently applying for funding to develop and pilot a CMC course in food technology. The main premise of this course will be that teachers will be able to access both "live" and "on-demand" lectures using streaming technology, with backup notes and worksheets, via a standard Internet browser. This means they will not need expensive video-conferencing equipment or specialised software to enable them to participate and learn on-line. For the busy teacher, with many curricular and social demands, CMC courses may prove popular thanks to their ability to run anywhere and at anytime, and so allowing teachers to take charge of their own training.
Roy Ballam is education liaison officer at the British Nutrition Foundation: www.nutrition.org.uk
* INCENTIVE TO IMPROVE COMPUTER LITERACY
A questionnaire devised by the British Nutrition Foundation was sent out to 900 food technology teachers to see what they thought of using computer-mediated communication (CMC). The results indicated that 88 per cent of teachers have access to the Internet. And a study by Manchester University suggests that for staff that use the Internet, 93 per cent use it for research and 71 per cent for downloading curriculum materials. Teachers indicated that the main constraints on attending face-to-face in-service training was the cost of the course (28 per cent), being released by the school (24 per cent), cost of supply cover (23 per cent), travelling to the venue (20 per cent) and giving up their own time (5 per cent). Nearly all said that CMC would not only be a useful vehicle for their own continuing professional development, but would be an incentive to become more computer literate.
This paints an optimistic future for CMC. However, the importance of meeting people face-to-face for INSET can't be overestimated. As one teacher stated on their questionnaire, "although CMC may be the future, the real bonus of a course is meeting and talking with other colleagues - this interaction and experience cannot be duplicated".
A strong case can be made for CMC, yet it should be put into context and be seen as another tool to empower the teacher. As with any other application of ICT, CMC has the potential to enhance our working lives, not change them beyond recognition.