It ought to be quite simple...

18th October 1996 at 01:00
There's a growing consensus that the way that teachers update their professional skills needs to be changed - and information technology is an obvious means of doing it. But so far practice is running a long way behind theory, argues Stephen Heppell

It should be straightforward. Teacher education is facing real pressure to change towards a model of continuous professional development - and new information technology offers us innovative and seductive channels for learning. Many of our teacher-training institutions and schools stand head and shoulders above the rest of Europe in using new technology. Surely we could harness IT to support teachers' professional development?

Unfortunately, it isn't that simple. A month or so into this new academic year, schools might expect at least some of their newly qualified teachers to be leading the charge in encouraging use of technology. But it hasn't happened. Indeed, many ex-students starting their teaching careers, especially in secondary schools, are denying any personal capability with a computer at all. What is going wrong?

Firstly, there is a massive under-reporting of competence - which is frankly quite understandable. A new teacher is facing enough problems already, and simply saying "No, I've not really used computers with a class but I would like to one day, perhaps next year" reduces the problems a little, as many of their experienced colleagues have found.

As a result, at least for this year they won't have to fight for timetable space in the computer room or need to fix the printer on the six-year-old model at the back of the room. They won't have to create extra space in a crowded examination subject to do computer work that is not admissible by the examination board, nor will they risk being the one doing IT when the Ofsted inspectors come to call with the unpredictable questions that reflect their own lack of training.

Meanwhile, new teachers can harness their unconfessed capability to the urgent tasks of generating worksheets at home (with the claim "my partner does them for me") and keeping on top of the ever-mounting administration burden ("she seems very organised for a newly qualified teacher"), The second problem is that at a national level there is no policy for using technology to meet teachers' professional needs. Every teacher will tell you that one delight of an in-service day is the opportunity to meet teachers from other schools with similar concerns to their own and to exchange ideas on what works and what doesn't. But, with in-service training increasingly coming in-house, this cross-fertilisation happens less and less.

Indeed, apart from any induction opportunities, many newly qualified teachers will not have the chance to exchange ideas with teachers from outside their school for some years. Yet we know, for example, from the Open University's electronic-conference-based PGCE programme, that linking teachers electronically offers an immediate and gratefully accepted channel for the exchange of practical ideas and for professional debate.

Why should we wait for lnternet-based news groups to spring up ad hoc to do this job? With more than 100 teacher-training institutions nationally and at least half of them connected to the Joint Academic Network (Janet), it is surely incumbent on the Teacher Training Agency to get the teacher education institutions to create a network of electronic forums for debate.

Newly qualified teachers enter classrooms very much as action researchers looking to continue their quest to find what works and what doesn't. The problem is that keeping up to date with the latest research is so difficult. where is your source of the latest research in your subject area for example, and can you print some of it out it at your next coffee break or tonight?

Yet the lnternet is specifically designed for the free exchange of research data and analysis. It seems curiously remiss that we have failed to drive ahead with major national initiatives to get teachers to use it.

An added bonus, of course, would be the public availability of some of the quality research about learning that education keeps secret to itself. How can we expect the public to engage in debate about teaching styles, selection or class size without them having access to the research?

Thirdly, no government has tried to soften the costs of ownership of computers for teachers. This must change. It is impossible to understand why we allow teachers to claim the heating of a study (marking) room against income tax but not the purchase of a computer - particularly when the evidence is so starkly clear that personal ownership of computers is the fastest route to development of teachers' professional IT skills. Indeed, there is currently the possibility that if the school loans a computer to staff to work on at night, they will have to pay tax on this "perk".

In Nortel's three-year study of children's social interactions on the lnternet, the teachers involved were given their computers to take home for much of the first term. Cynics might have expected that it would have been difficult to get that hardware back into schools after that. In fact, the teachers developed and honed their IT skills and were champing at the bit to use the kit in their classrooms so that they could harness what they had learned. If the teacher unions and professional associations were to lobby for tax exemption in the run up to an election, they would surely be pushing against an open door.

Sadly, although it seems obvious that using technology to meet teachers' professional needs will also help their IT competence, it is quite likely that none of this will happen. Instead, a few bland targets will be tightened, teacher education will be criticised a little more and many teachers will continue to say as they begin their careers: "No, I've not really used computers with a class, but I'd like to one day. Maybe next year?" * Stephen Heppell runs the Ultralab research unit at Anglia Polytechnic University

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