The missing majority

18th October 1996 at 01:00
Most teachers still do not make regular use of information technology. Margaret Bell, chief executive of the National Council for Educational Technology, says it's time they did news team

In the constantly changing world of information technology, it is difficult to believe that one statistic has remained constant since 1989. The number of teachers reporting that they make regular use of IT was recorded by the Department for Education and Employment in 1994 as 56 per cent for primary schools and 34 per cent for secondaries. The figures for 1989 were 56 per cent and 32 per cent respectively. It is generally agreed that these figures are too optimistic: the National Council for Educational Technology refers to teachers still not using IT as "the missing two-thirds".

The NCET has recently undergone an efficiency review which has raised questions about whether we can improve the way we plan, articulate and report on our strategy and about how we measure impact and work with partners. It has provided a welcome opportunity to draw breath and reconsider the priorities in the complex world of IT and learning. Teacher use of IT remains a priority.

There have, of course, been many initiatives to train teachers and encourage them in the use of IT but, it seems, none have been able to persuade the majority of teachers to embrace IT in their work. It is important to stop and consider why this is the case and what we should be doing differently.

Perhaps one clue can be found in the conflicting messages that teachers are receiving. Teachers can be considered successful and effective in their work without using IT. Using IT still causes more comment than not using it, and it is still not "business as usual" to use IT in most schools. While this attitude prevails, only the more adventurous, the risk-takers and "early adopters" of new techniques will embrace this change.

If we are serious about IT in schools, then there must be a clear statement that all teachers must be competent and confident in their use of IT. There is no more choice for this profession than any other. Indeed, the teaching profession should be seen as leading the way into the new information society.

IT competence means not just mastering the skills of the keyboard and the intricacies of individual software packages, it means developing the mindset of accessing, creating, adapting, presenting and communicating data, of being in control and creating quality products in a short timescale. There are no exceptions, no excuses and no hiding places - it can't be left to the IT support teacher or to the few enthusiasts who like to dabble and experiment. IT is an integral part of every teacher's job.

Why IT for all teachers? Because IT is for all people. Virtually every job will increasingly require competence and competence in IT. That implies an ability to exploit technology, be creative and add value through using it. What's more, some 30 per cent of homes in the UK have multimedia PCs, many of them with Internet connections.

Every job, soon every home - it is inconceivable that IT should not permeate every school and every classroom. The communications revolution cannot mean IT in every job but not in teaching.

Other professions use IT because it saves them time on routine administration tasks, allows them to process information faster, increases and enhances the range of services they can offer, improves their productivity and provides better value for money. Any initial resistance to using IT has been rapidly overcome. Why not teaching? One of the great strengths of computers is their ability to manage large numbers of variables; there are few more complex sets of variables than those found in a class of 30 children.

Schools should be exploiting IT for recording and reporting systems and to prepare curriculum materials; IT should be used routinely by all teachers. To date, teachers have typically been expected to integrate IT into the classroom before they have had the opportunity to experience the benefits of it for themselves, or understand how it can enhance their professionalism and make them more efficient and effective outside the classroom. But, of course, to do this teachers need easy access to equipment.

The DfEE has recently announced a Pounds 4 million project to provide portable computers for teachers, to be managed by the NCET. The evaluation of this project will provide further evidence on how best to manage and support such a resource, its effects on efficiency, its influence on the curriculum and on the relevance of IT accreditation for teachers and administrative staff. Meanwhile, we should be considering how access to such technology could be extended to all teachers.

Another clue to reaching the "missing two-thirds" is in facilitating and encouraging teachers to share ideas and experience; they can learn from one other. Teachers can be encouraged to reflect on and discuss with colleagues the benefits and issues of integrating IT into teaching and learning.

Through NCET-TV, broadcast television has provided the opportunity for teachers to talk about their experience, successes and difficulties in integrating IT into their work. It has proved a very popular medium, with more than 12, 000 teachers registered as viewers and many more watching the recordings of the programmes.

IT offers new opportunities to support learning and development for teachers as well as students. The NCET is managing a project for the Department of Education Northern Ireland to produce teacher development material on a CD-Rom. We have also used electronic mail and computer conferencing to provide a forum for teachers to exchange ideas and develop strategies for improving their students' learning. More than 200 Special Educational Needs Co-ordinators (SENCOs) have been linked through computer conferencing. SENCOs are often isolated and expected to deal with a wide range of needs of children in their schools. Through this forum the teachers can ask each other for advice and draw upon experience of colleagues.

This approach has also been successfully applied in the Open University's PGCE programme. All students have computers with electronic communications through which they receive help and support from their tutors and, most importantly, from their fellow students. The students experience first-hand the power of the technology to support learning - a lasting impression that they carry with them into their teaching careers.

If teachers are to work with the technology and to learn through it, they need to gain access to computers and electronic communications outside the classroom.

I have recently returned from a visit to North America as part of the Parliamentary IT Committee's study tour. The visit focused on telecommunications regulation and liberalisation, but there were interesting insights into how education and access are being addressed. New Brunswick is stimulating home-purchase of computers by offering grants of $250 (Pounds 162) per computer, a sum equal to the provincial sales tax on a typical computer purchase. In its new Telecommunications Bill, the United States has identified schools as one of the four priority areas on which to target the Universal Service Fund.

Canada's Schoolnet initiative has resulted in a critical mass of schools being connected to the Internet in less than two years, with a clear target to connect all school before 1999; this has been achieved by a small federal team promoting its use and providing on-line information for teachers that is not readily available in any other form. Strategies such as these are what we should be considering; they stimulate activity but require relatively small amounts of money.

Expanding teachers' IT use requires more than greater opportunities for training; it needs a clear statement of expectation, a change of attitude to using IT and access to the technology by teachers. All teachers should experience first hand the power of technology to support learning - their own learning. We are all facing the challenges of the emerging networked information society; teachers must be encouraged to lead the way.

* For more information about the NCET, telephone the enquiry deskon 01203 416994 or e-mail

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