Teachers shouldn't police pupils' access to the net, a conference will be told. Dorothy Walker reports
Are teachers becoming "officers of the digital learning police"? That is one of the questions posed to delegates in the run-up to Xchange 2006, a conference on ICT in schools in Belfast next week.
The point of the question: by banning access to some internet tools in an attempt to protect young people, schools may simply be encouraging pupils to use them outside the classroom.
The issue was raised by educational technology guru Alan November, who recalls a meeting with teachers and pupils in London. When a headteacher reported that he had blocked access to all the popular blogging sites on the internet, Alan asked pupils for their views. Two secondary students replied: "As soon as we were told not to blog, we went home and launched a blog at myspace.com."
Alan says it is time for schools to review their policies, assessing their impact beyond the classroom. And he believes that rather than "trying to hang on to the control we imagine we still have", teachers should aim to become role models in using blogs and podcasts, employing them to help students collaborate.
That might sound like a tall order, but Xchange delegates are no strangers to challenges. About 300 people are expected in Belfast, including teachers, heads, advisers and consultants from Europe and the US. The conference is the second of four annual events in the Xchange program, which was established by the education departments in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. Xchange aims to draw together an international community to share experiences of ICT in schools and influence policy.
Members are invited to set themselves challenges that will make an impact on their work, reporting progress in their own Xchange blog. They are also urged to brave some of the pursuits so popular with students - among recent dares was: "Play a real video game with a real kid and report on how badly you lost."
Professor John Anderson of the Northern Ireland Department of Education, who is chairing the event, says: "We are focusing very much on practice."
Themes such as practitioner research will explore how teachers can have more say in the future of ICT in schools. The idea is that rather than being expected to consume weighty slabs of research, teachers should be encouraged to become action researchers, trying things out and reporting on the developments already taking place in their classrooms.
John says: "There is a move away from 'tombstone' research, we don't need that. We need practitioners telling us about the changes taking place in their schools, they should be determining what educational software will look like in the future."
Delegates will discuss how schools can reap the rewards of all the investment that is going into ICT. This theme is entitled the Next Curve, and some of the theory that has been aired in the Xchange literature sounds a bit loopy. (Try making the connection between Kondratieff's Long Wave Theory of Technological Change and the emergence of "call-girls available by phone". Or consider the suggestion that "everything changes in predictably unpredictable ways".) The basic message, however, is straightforward. John says: "You can invest as much as you want in ICT, but it won't make a jot of difference unless you are also making really substantial reforms to your teaching and learning, your curriculum, your assessment systems."
And Alan passes on a sobering thought from the head of a major corporation: when firms invest in technology, 70 per cent of the budget is devoted to changing the way their business operates. "Is it fair to compare education to business?" Alan asks in the latest Xchange newsletter.
The digital divide will also be debated. About 3 million children have no access to a computer and the internet at home, and John says helping families secure technology can also help parents support their children's learning. "Research shows that having support at home makes a difference to pupils' achievement. By taking the opportunity to help families with technology, you can also begin to engage with parents. The box - the computer - is an opening for conversation," he says.
Other themes include creativity and innovation, with award-winning teachers taking centre stage to share their practice, and the conference will hear the views of young people on the use and value of technology in schools.
Among those taking part in panel sessions will be Dr Jerry Weast, a schools superintendent from the US, who is expected to play devil's advocate, questioning whether ICT really does make a difference. John says: "I am tired of those conferences where the converted just preach to the converted. You have to be able to question things hard."
Everyone will have the chance to air an opinion, intervening in presentations with the help of a system designed to support collective decision-making. Delegates will team up in pairs on special keyboards, posting live questions and comments for the presenter and the audience.
John says: "We introduced the technology at the previous Xchange conference in Birmingham. The plan was that after each session the speaker would pose a question, and the audience would have a chance to discuss it and type their responses. But people didn't wait for the question, they just began typing during the presentation: 'This guy has no idea what he is talking about - what's really happening isI' They really appreciated the chance to engage."
* Xchange 2006 will be at the Europa Hotel, Belfast from June 7 to 9.
The Xchange programme is overseen by the British Educational Communications and Technology Agency (Becta). Register at www.xchange2006.com