Loose connection

18th May 2001 at 01:00
ICT falls woefully short of the cutting-edge ideal in classrooms across the principality. Neil Harries reports.

Wales can probably complain that it has had a raw deal over ICT in education. The funding has been different and the National Grid for Learning has been wholly orientated towards the needs of England.

The Welsh Office has underwritten the Virtual Teachers Centre Cymru (see box right) to deal with teachers' emerging needs, yet seems unconcerned that the centre has delivered absolutely nothing. Indeed the National Audit Office might want to assess how much VTC Cymru has cost and how the money might have been better used to meet the needs of Welsh teachers.

We still do not have enough PCs in classrooms in Wales, we do not have a network that enables teachers to access work being created elsewhere without incurring costs, and we do not have a long-term ICT staff-development programme.

These are the major issues to address. Wales currently lags behind other countries, partly because no connection seems to be made between the needs of ICT in schools and the wider economic regeneration agenda.

We need to rapidly develop networks that link LEAs, schools and, most importantly, classrooms. We must take Internet access to the point of teaching and learning and in the form that the school wants, not what someone, somewhere thinks it ought to have. We need access points in classrooms in multiples of at least five. Singapore now has a PC and access point for every two children in each classroom. In Ireland they have gone from one to 30 or worse to one to five in three years. If we are to catch up we will need the kind of publicprivate partnership that kickstarted Ireland's education ICT drive. Wales must also develop net-based content tuned to schools' curricular needs. That means having due regard to the Welsh language, which has received little attention. Most crucially it means enabling schools to present the work being developed in the classroom on websites accessible to other schools, thus achieving what the VTC Cymru signally failed to do. A huge mass of materials developed by teachers needs to become available to a wider audience. We must also give teachers ready access to the big curricular databases such as GEM (Gateway to Educatio Materials) in the United States, and Scoilnet in Ireland.

Key to all this is the need to allow teachers to make best use of their limited time. That is where the National Grid for Learning Cymru team will come in by sifting materials and classifying them in accessible form.

Lastly we must tackle the issues of skills and competences head on. At present we have the National Opportunities Fund training initiative but teachers invariably see it as too elementary or too technical. That overlooks the real problem - its short-term goals, which contain the seeds of its failure. We need a staff-development programme to assist teachers and learners that is geared to the long term and will pick up changes as they occur. However, it is also true that ICT expertise is being developed in the schools and local education authorities faster than in government, so it can only impact slowly on the major decision-making processes. As teacher-trainers and the quality assurance services also lack ICT expertise there are problems with developing the teaching force and assessing the impact of new technology. This lack of knowledge in high places is a matter of some concern. Perhaps too many people are uncomfortable with teaching orthodoxies being challenged.

The report I produced for the Wales Assembly on ICT in education last November was given its unanimous support last month. But so far nothing has actually happened - other than yet more equipment initiatives. It is well known that the wheels of government grind slowly. One can sometimes be forgiven for wondering if they are grinding at all. We all know that reports are commissioned, and sometimes discreetly forgotten.

To achieve what Wales needs may therefore still have to be fought for, since it is likely that some of the decision-makers are among the unconvinced. Thus, the next stage may be up to the teacher associations. Until we create the situation where the teacher and learner can access the Internet from their desks we will still have some way to go.

Neil Harries was the expert adviser on ICT in education to the Wales Assembly's education and lifelong learning committee. Neil Harries will deliver the keynote lecture on 'ICT in schools - a strategy for Wales' at 10.30am on Thursday May 24

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