Let me offer offline advice about online materials ... Open letter

15th February 2013 at 00:00

Dear Petra,

I was re-reading the National Partnership Group's (NPG's) advice to the cabinet secretary. You, of course, are now the lead figure in Scotland in implementing these recommendations.

A computer search of the document found 44 references to "online" or "on-line". That is a little worrying. NPG, in my view, lost sight a little of what Donaldson actually said, ie: "Online CPD should be part of the blended tailored approach to CPD." (My emphasis.)

I make much use of online materials, not least those from Education Scotland. So it is not that I distrust online materials; very much the opposite. But:

1. Unsupported free-standing online materials (whether documents or audio-streams or video-streams) typically have limited impact. (Were it otherwise, MIT and Harvard would already have transformed the educational state of the world.)

2. Online materials with a high degree of automated interactivity are better than unsupported online materials, but still lack the social element of peer or tutor validation.

3. Interactive online material, when allied to peer and tutor input by electronic means, add yet another layer of richness to the learning experience.

4. Online materials blended in with some face-to-face contact are even more powerful in their impact; and you don't need much face-to-face contact to have a big effect.

But does anyone in Education Scotland have the slightest understanding of these four simple points? The evidence suggests not.

- The Education Scotland materials are for the most part non-interactive. Sometimes they have accompanying questions and activities. But that is not interactivity.

- There is no tutor support from Education Scotland. Even a simple online discussion forum with some expert moderation would be a great improvement and would be very easy to do.

- The implicit model is mostly that of the teacher as a lone student in front of a computer screen.

How many of Scotland's 50,000 teachers are motivated to even embark on such a heroic learning journey? Not many (indeed, not any) of those I have met. Effective teacher CPD is a collegial activity: the worldwide evidence on that is striking and overwhelming.

Were Education Scotland or some other national body to organise a national forum of mentors (nominated by education authorities or schools) and were these mentors then to work at local level with communities of teachers, occasionally meeting them face-to-face but communicating with them even more regularly by electronic means, there could be much progress.

Until that is done, for your implementation board to follow the NPG advice to produce more online materials would be as useless as pouring water into the peat bogs of Scotland: few blooms would emerge.

I hope, Petra, my gentle advice does not fall on stony ground.

Yours sincerely, Iain

Iain Smith was at one time a dean of education in the University of Strathclyde. He writes in a personal capacity.

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