As the debate over kitemarking hots up, a growing number of parents are looking to teachers for expert opinions on ICT products. Here, Jacquie Disney assesses how the best advice can be given.
Are you being asked to recommend?
If your experience is anything like ours, parents will be asking you for advice about what they should buy - what equipment, what software, which is the best, how much do they need to spend? Our research indicates this as a growing pattern when it comes to ICT. By all accounts there are also very few of you who feel confident about providing such advice. This is not surprising given the pace of change in the world of technology plus differences in the range of products available to schools and homes.
However, as educators, we know that it is often less about what you know than how you can find out. Why reinvent the wheel if someone out there has already done some of the work?
It was not by a coincidence or mistake that four years ago PIN started a very grass roots model of software evaluation for parents wanting to invest in technology for their children. As an organisation receiving thousands of requests from parents per month, the overwhelming frequently asked questions (FAQs) related to advice about software - not only what was available but specifically what products were worth buying. The "what is available" does not take too much to work out, but identifying what is "worth buying" was a much bigger nut to crack and took us down a route of making qualitative evaluations. This being the case, we needed specific criteria. In particular, we certainly needed to know:
* the educational soundness of the content;
* whether the product worked in the home.
The value of teamwork
As a consequence, we have now built up teams of very experienced teachers and parents who evaluate software over a two month period, the summarised results of which are published on the Internet.
In the main the parents' objective is usually to identify resources that will be useful for their child as well as engaging - after all ther hard-earned money is being spent on programs that have to compete with computer games for attention!
The perception of "value for money" will usually be a combination of these two elements. Whereas a teacher might value a piece of software that has a tiny element perfectly supporting part of a topic covered each year by the national curriculum, software in the home is not something that can be trundled out year after year. It will have its period of usefulness then be consigned to the memory bin.
How does it rate?
Those of you who have looked at a range of software will know that there is considerable variation in quality. For this reason we also responded to requests to provide indicators of the way evaluators "rated" software in relation to the criteria. For some in the education world, the prospect of rating or "kitemarking" raises murmurs of concern. I entirely agree that it would be extremely difficult to institute a rating scheme able to take account of all the different ways a professional teacher might wish to use a resource as a tool of the trade. However, I consider the home consumer to be operating within a different territory.
The majority of parents are a significantly inexperienced and thus inevitably rather undiscerning group of individuals when it comes to technology products. They have yet to develop a sense of a standard which they should expect and accept. Ultimately they can choose to value or disagree with our results, but our aim is to give them something on which to base their opinions. I don't think it is acceptable to leave it to trial and error.
Judge for yourself whether or not you think our method provides a useful source of advice and support for parents.
Jacquie Disney has an ICT background as both teacher and teacher trainer. She is the director of PIN (Parents Information Network), an independent service for parents who want to help their children learn using computers and the Internet.The PINsoftware evaluations for parents can be found at www.pin.org.uksoftware