7th November 2003 at 00:00
Adeline Dinsmore - runner-up in the Secondary Leadership category of last year's ICT in Practice awards talks to Dorothy Walker

"Technology transforms people's lives," says Adeline Dinsmore, and nowhere can the proof be more evident than in her own school.

Dinsmore is principal at Ashfield Girls' High School, Belfast, where, in two years of whirlwind activity, she has employed ICT to restore flagging morale and create a powerful sense of optimism and achievement. Dinsmore herself left school at 15, and confesses she hated it - but loved learning.

During her 30-year teaching career she has pioneered the use of technology to promote flexible, self-supported study, and make schools "convivial institutions" for pupils and teachers alike.

Dinsmore first discovered the power of ICT in the late 1980s, when she was teaching English (see TES Teacher, November 14) at the Belfast Model School for Girls. Keen on creating learning resources, she had been typing material on her Imperial 30 typewriter, deemed more practical than the computers she had tried. When Dinsmore saw an Apple machine in action, it was love at first sight.

Her new computer soon attracted the interest of colleagues, and was pressed into service for producing school publications. But for Dinsmore the real breakthrough came in 1992, when she began to employ ICT to support autonomous learning. As part of a pilot scheme, she was helping a geographer colleague create resources which would help pupils take more responsibility for their learning. The topic was ethnic diversity.

"The girls were used to receiving loads of handouts, and they were utterly dependent on us for 'stuff'," she says. "There wasn't a culture of reading or watching the news in their families, so we decided to create a multimedia package to fill gaps in their knowledge."

She showed her colleague how to use HyperCard, multimedia authoring software, to bundle facts, figures and newsreel footage together in an easy-to-explore package. "The results were dramatic - there were terrific improvements in what the girls achieved," she explains. The teachers wrote about the project, and found themselves presenting the paper at the World Conference for Computers in Education in 1995.

Dinsmore began encouraging other colleagues to seed ICT in their everyday practice, a campaign which intensified as she rose to be vice-principal and then acting principal. She invited departments to bid for time, money and training for projects, and adopted the concept of teacher-leaders training their peers in the use of ICT.

When New Opportunities Fund (NOF) training was launched, the school bid successfully to be an approved NOF training provider. The proceeds were used to take eight teachers to the US, to the summer institute run by learning technology guru Alan November.

In 2001 Dinsmore became principal of Ashfield Girls' High School. From the outset she used ICT as the catalyst to raise morale and standards.

One of her first moves was to give pupils an online discussion forum where they could air their views. They responded by using the forum to help transform their lives, winning the case for their down-at-heel school premises to be completely rebuilt.

She has encouraged staff to use the school's website to promote self-supported learning, and 95 per cent of pupils now use the site outside school hours. "I have tried to invest whatever we have - that's not usually money, but I have given teachers more time to engage with technology, so that they realise just how important it is. What you get back is immense," she says.

Dinsmore was voted runner-up in the Secondary Leadership category of last year's ICT in Practice awards. She is now helping other leaders through Schools of Thought, an approach pioneered with consultant Jenny Brown and currently being piloted in Northern Ireland schools.

"The job of school principal is one of the loneliest in the world, and we are using technology to build a circle of professional friends and mentors," says Dinsmore. "We really want to excite people about using ICT to help do their jobs better."

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