Scottish schools get ready for take off in a transatlantic IT project, writes Merlin John. Turbulence" - what an understatement. The only other place outside an aeroplane that you could experience momentary weightlessness and live is on a theme park ride. But for the five Scottish teachers and an adviser from the Scottish Council for Educational Technology (SCET) this hairy moment was just part and parcel of a week's in-service training in information technology.
They were minutes away from Toronto airport on their 13-hour journey to Columbus, Ohio, to prepare for their role in setting up Europe's only secondary outpost of one of the longest running and most prestigious US research projects on IT in education - the Apple Classroom of Tomorrow (ACOT) - when the plane dropped like a stone.
It was a perfect talking point as they swapped near-miss stories during the four-hour wait for the connecting flight to Columbus in a 36-seat turboprop.
Although St Andrew's High School in Kirkcaldy, Fife, Scotland, launched the project last week, the spade work began in earnest about two months ago when a team from the 800-student school spent a week at West High School, Columbus, an original ACOT. They were learning about the changes IT can bring to teaching, learning and the curriculum. With them was advisory teacher Carole Gillespie from SCET, which is supporting the project and helping to set up independent evaluation. Two primary schools - in Sweden and Belgium - are St Andrew's other European research partners in the Pounds 1 million project.
In the early days of educational IT one of the rallying calls was "one computer per child". ACOT was one of the first outfits to explode that myth and establish that the crucial element for successful IT in schools is teacher education and support.
At West High the Scottish team hit a second patch of turbulence. Stimulated by the scheme's success, and the happy and highly collaborative atmosphere of the school's four ACOT classrooms, it was difficult not to be convinced of the value of a technology-rich classroom. But how would they find the leeway and flexibility back home in a Scottish timetable dominated by a relatively rigid curriculum? How does it sit with the political pressure for "whole class" teaching? And, convinced of ACOT's value, how can they persuade their own colleagues?
Would there be room for the work they were shown with sensors, for example, that could yield as much for the science curriculum as it could for mathematics?
Over a week, with an 8.30am daily start, the Kirkcaldy teachers sat in on ACOT lessons and were shown how to use computers for a variety of activities, from simple word processing and spreadsheets through creating their own multimedia presentations using HyperStudio, to desktop conferencing to collaborate with schools in other parts of the US. Scanners, digital cameras, videodiscs, even the information superhighway are no longer a mystery to them.
Surprisingly, however, it wasn't the technology itself that was so impressive. There were no serried ranks of computers, though there were 36 per classroom. Instead the IT was used naturally, when needed. The real eye-opener was the general atmosphere, the relationship between students and teachers. There was very little of the underlying antagonism and wasteful pursuit of nitpicking rules that can feature in so many UK schools. There was, noticeably, more collaboration and harmony - and these were supposed to be young people from tough neighbourhoods.
"What impressed me was the pupil involvement," says English teacher Dee Maloney. "They were all engaged and enjoyably so in the tasks they were set. They wanted to learn for its own sake, not because the teacher said 'Thou shalt'."
Maybe it was this sense of responsibility that brought out the student qualities that were enjoyed and remarked on by all the UK visitors - their courtesy, charm and expressiveness.
The students' practical contributions were impressive too. "One of the major things is that they are willing to accept responsibility for their own learning," says Anne Saunders, a science teacher. "At home, students rely more on the teacher for motivation: here they are more able to stay on task, and willing to help other pupils and even get involved with other schools, which is a fabulous idea. Jason, who is 18, is using all his skills to set up work with primary schools. He is amazing."
The spirit of collaboration was something Gordon Mullay had already experienced teaching in Germany. "Here in the US the approach to the work seemed casual, but in fact the students take it very seriously. The teachers talk about 'students' and about them 'graduating'. To us these terms belong to higher education but they do have an influence on people's general attitudes. What was obvious was the lack of aggression."
A major challenge in Scotland, he feels, will be to find the timetabling flexibility for interdisciplinary work. "We don't want the assessment tail wagging the curriculum dog as so often happens in British education," he says.
The point is not lost on Jim Patterson who, as assistant head (he also teaches physics), has administration and timetable responsibilities. "The staff were comfortable with the technology and there are obvious benefits for staff development. They obviously believe in the project and are all very positive about what they are doing. For many educational initiatives in the UK that is often not the case.
"For us it's also an opportunity to bring the US and Europe closer together, using a project that has meaning. We can have modern technology at our fingertips and apply it directly to our own subject areas. This has implications for classroom teachers, departments, policy-making with the school and for local and national initiatives."
The importance of teacher support was reinforced for the Scottish visitors on their last night of training. Thinking they were going for a social meeting with Ohio teachers involved in a cross-state communications project on rivers, they were surprised to find themselves in a well-equipped meeting room in an upmarket motel.
Within minutes of their introductions they were into an entertaining problem-solving session that went on until 10pm before adjourning until the next morning. What commitment, they thought. But, of course, the US teachers were being well recompensed, and, to help them with their added duties on the project, the state was supplying each of them with an Apple PowerBook laptop computer. Teacher support indeed.
Now the St Andrew's ACOT is under way, the staff and school will start to experience the turbulence produced by the pull of a structured curriculum on creative teaching methods. But that's what happens when you try to fly.
The strength of this project, however, is that they don't have to go it alone. Lesley Kinloch, director of the European ACOTs, says: "What's exciting is that they can collaborate with other sites. One has been launched in Australia and more are expected in the Pacific countries and Latin America."
As ACOT research manager Pedro Hernandez-Ramos commented when in Europe to visit the new sites: "The interesting thing is that video conferencing is going in now, and we will be asking what kinds of technology make a difference? We hope to break down teachers' isolation, and we can do this by consulting our colleagues in other parts of the world."
* St Andrew's High School, Overton Road, Kirkcaldy, Scotland KY1 3JL. Tel: 01592 418200. Fax: 01592 418 310.
* The next Computers Update, which will focus on teacher support and training, will include a feature on developments at St Andrew's