Douglas Blane sees how a Scottish school is are taking the anxiety out of new technology.
When a school commits itself wholeheartedly to the use of technology, some of the changes that occur are obvious and immediate - the arrival of shiny new computers on worktops, thick instruction manuals on shelves and worried frowns on foreheads. Others are subtle and gradual but, in the long run, far more significant, and these are the changes that take place in the teachers' minds.
American researchers have studied these changes and developed a model for the long and often rocky road that teachers have to travel towards embracing technology. The model is general enough to encompass starting points as varied as interest, apprehension, scepticism, even hatred and fear. But it has only one end-point, at which the teacher is as comfortable with technology as with chalk and blackboard, and can use it creatively.
There will always be a few intrepid characters who get to journey's end quickly and without assistance but, for most, an experienced guide and pleasant companions are desirable. Teacher Development Centres (TDCs), such as the one at St Andrew's High School in Kirkcaldy, Fife, are a good place to find both.
Headteacher Anthony Finn says that teachers learn by observing and working with a team of experienced teachers and students: "The centre's design is based on the idea that learning should take place in an environment where learners can construct and interpret meaning for themselves, rather than where a teacher simply transmits information."
It is also based on considerable experience of using computers in classroom teaching because, in 1996, St Andrew's was selected to participate in the Apple Classrooms of Tomorrow (ACOT) initiative. The project was designed to support a small number of pioneer schools to develop, demonstrate and share good practice in using computers as multimedia teaching and learning tools.
Teacher development co-ordinator Margret Macphail explains that she and four teachers from different disciplines - English, maths, German and science - are at the core of the St Andrew's ACOT team. At the beginning of the project, a classroom in each of these subjects was equipped with computers and the team attended a training course in Columbus, Ohio. "We set up the TDC last year. At first it provided training only to our own staff, but it's now available to all teachers in Scotland and beyond - we've trained two Turkish teachers and are expecting another group this session." Now St Andrew's helps Fife education department with the NOF training scheme.
Most of the people who provide the training have a teaching background. Macphail explains: "It's important for us to have a thorough understanding of the curriculum before we can train and support teachers in the latest technology."
The research-based model that lies at the heart of the TDC describes five stages in a teacher's progress with technology.
Those at the "entry" stage tend to be preoccupied with their own inadequacy, and react to problems instead of anticipating them. Training in computer familiarisation and elementary skills, such as keyboarding and word processing, allow them to progress to "adoption", where they begin to develop ways of solving simple problems. At the "adaptation" stage other approaches to teaching are discussed and software tools such as spreadsheets, databases and hypermedia are introduced. The teacher's own courses begin to evolve as a result of teacher input and feedback from students.
A significant milestone is "appropriation", where the teacher begins to use the technology effortlessly. At this stage, training concentrates on higher-order skills: team-teaching, interdisciplinary projects, experimentation with scheduling and assessment. At the final stage, "invention", teachers are fully capable of flying solo, but are encouraged to mentor others, collaborate with researchers and present papers at conferences. Problems in the classroom arise when teachers do not have enough time or training to progress.
Finn adds: "After training, most teachers adopt new attitudes and behaviour, including changes in beliefs about teaching and the use of IT in the classroom. Teachers begin to see themselves as learners again, and become willing to take risks, like trying a new lesson structure, using new technology or changing the student-teacher relationship."