When I was handed the challenge of keeping a lid on information and communications technology (ICT) activities with 29 young and eager students, my main concern was in finding software that was able to make the difference I knew computers could. My overwhelming feeling in this search was a sense of disappointment.
I had ventured into computing when I was asked to manage the school's 800-programme video collection without a catalogue. What else could I do other than come to terms with a database? But I was amazed by what the computer allowed me to do and became hooked on exploring IT further. In my teaching I wanted to replicate in the children's learning experience the level of difference a computer had made to my own working practices and thought processes.
Technology has moved on since then and so have my expectations and understanding of the contribution software can make. What is important for teachers is to become discerning users - after all, this is an industry still in its infancy and much software does little more than replicate traditional resources and teaching styles. And while we are right to expect more from software than this, we also have to engage more with it if the situation is to change. In this respect a valuable lessons I have learned is to be both selective and reflective. Given the amount of software on the market, pick one or two programs you think have value. Evaluations and the opinion of others are one way to find these, but you must also know why you think a program is worth having in your class.
If this is to be achieved we have to be active in the exploration of technology, not passively accept received views. Teachers must not lose confidence in what they know about learning simply because this new tool has been so hyped; it is important they understand the content, be clear about its value and be able to manage its use with children as they would any other resource.
Most children enjoy using a computer so it makes sense to take advantage of their motivational bonuses. But computers will remain little more than a treat unless teachers have a clear idea of the learning objectives each time they are used: objectives might be to practise programming, learn to total columns in a spreadsheet or develop problem-solving techniques with a maths investigation on a spreadsheet.
In addition the value of a program may not simply be that it presents an aspect of science in a lucid way or provides an easy-to-use spreadsheet. Don't underestimate the value of all the surrounding activity, particularly the discussion that is stimulated by the experience of using software. As always, the most important role for a teacher is to recognise that this is occuring and encourage children to think, reflect and talk about what they are learning.
We all need to help each other by talking, arguing and thinking more about the reality, rather than being distracted by the technology itself; after all, this is what drives learning. Getting the most from software is really all about teachers rolling up their sleeves and getting stuck in - dipping a toe in the water is not the same as going for a swim. This is the only way to move your understanding of ICT forward and start to enjoy and benefit from something that will otherwise be a compulsory burden.
Jacquie Disney worked as a teacher and ICTadvisory teacher. She is the director of PIN (Parents Information Network) which has its own area on The TES' Learnfree website www.learnfree.co.uk Email her at email@example.com