Online courses are not there yet
Available data suggest that most children use computers rarely, and at best for about 15 per cent of the time. There are many reasons why this may be the case, but one of the questions that comes around again and again is whether teachers have enough of the right kind of continuing professional development (CPD) to support them in their application of learning technologies.
CPD is expensive and time consuming, and getting release from school can be a problem. So can e-learning provide the answer to teacher training needs? Recent Economic and Social Research Council-funded research carried out at Cardiff University suggests that, in general, ICT is not contributing to a blossoming of adult learning. But maybe teachers are different, after all teaching and learning is our business so won't we be more motivated than most, and better able to manage our own learning? Certainly the National College for School Leadership (NCSL, www.ncsl.org.uk) is making great strides in the provision of online opportunities for teachers to share information and expertise, not least through a variety of computer-mediated communications (CMC) options.
At the recent Association for Learning Technology (ALT) conference (www.alt.ac.ukaltc2004), the issues around using CMCs to support learning communities were debated. ALT focuses on higher and further education, where its use is now common. That experience can provide insights for those of us who concentrate on school-level use of technology, and in particular initial and continuing teacher training.
The use of CMCs, discussion boards and the like, assumes that collaboration is a part of the learners' concept of effective learning, but there is little evidence that this is, in fact, the case for most people. The SOLE project (http:sole.ilrt.bris.ac.uk) has looked in detail at student expectations of online learning. They have found that collaboration does not come naturally, and needs to be learned - which is not that surprising as it can be a problem getting people to collaborate in face-to-face sessions, too.
One of the supposed advantages of online CPD is the attractiveness of anytime, anywhere learning, but is this backed by evidence? Generally, uptake of online courses is not as high as expected. Professional learners prefer protected time to learn, and are more likely to get this in commercial training contexts than in schools. Data on teachers logging on mainly late at night and at weekends may explain why uptake is not 100 per cent, and has to raise questions of sustainability and effectiveness.
Clearly we cannot look to online experiences to solve CPD needs on their own. However, a growing number of cases show how useful online contact with colleagues can be. The first and most sustained success story must be that of the special needs co-ordinator forum started by Becta. The NCSL in Dialogue suite of options is also proving invaluable to a growing number of practitioners. Overall there are some clear pointers emerging on how to make online elements a successful part of CPD. First among these, is making sure that the value of this is recognised, so that the time it takes is acknowledged along with the outcomes achieved. So it will be interesting to see what the current review of CPD being carried out by the Teacher Training Agency will have to say on the subject of alignment of online CPD courses with teacher career progression.
Angela McFarlane is professor of education and director of learning technology at the Graduate School of Education, University of Bristol