Rebooting the classroom;Opinion

30th July 1999 at 01:00
The rise of information technology demands that the role of the teacher

is re-evaluated, says Sandra Percy.

I WAS MOST interested by Anne Bruce's article "Gameboy's program for better learning" (TESS, June 11). I am one of the recent converts to the use of computers and as a convert, I write with a passion.

As an English teacher I admit I have been extremely sceptical as to the value of computers in my subject. This was perhaps exacerbated by the fact that initially the department in which I teach did not use the "user-friendly" word-processors I was accustomed to. With the advent of the PC, however, things began to change and I became aware of the fact that the pupils and I were beginning to "speak the same language".

It would be nice to say that I adopted a structured approach to the use and presentation of learning materials on the computer. I did not: it was piecemeal. I experimented. I admit that it was a thought to take a class of 30 pupils to the computer suite (a converted classroom) and "let them loose".

Initially, this was what happened. I tried to ensure that everyone had something to word-process, which I naively thought was the main use that could be made of computers in English. Where I went drastically wrong was trying to achieve too much: I was expecting a class to word-process an essay. We want back period after period until everyone had finished. It became a chore - for the pupils and for me.

I learnt a lot from that initial experience. The class and their behaviour and competence with the computers were not the main problems. My choice of task and restriction to use were the limiting factors. I began to view the use to which computers could be used in a different light. I realised that they facilitate access to a whole range of activities.

I did not see it as my job to teach the pupils how to access these facilities but to give them opportunities to do so within my subject. To this end I reviewed one of my S1 units of work.

I did not rewrite it but when I came to explaining the tasks I would highlight which ones could be tackled using the computer. I concentrated on three main areas: word-processing activities, use of the Internet to access information for research and presentation - including the use of different fonts to reflect content. Both the pupils and myself were far happier with this situation.

In retrospect I feel that I was more successful this time. The criterion I used to evaluate the success of this experiment was the standard of the work produced. I deliberately had the automatic spelling and grammar checks removed while the class were working. When I use a PC I rely quite heavily on such aids, my excuse being that I can spell correctly and write grammatically constructed sentences and so I am simply making typing errors.

What was interesting was that the pupils were not in the least perturbed by the removal of these aids. In most cases, the standard of written work improved. Pupils were recognising that what they had written was incorrect. They were really thinking about what they had written. As Anne Bruce pointed out, this was especially true of pupils who normally underachieve (mainly boys).

Another surprising aspect of the experiment, for me, was that it led to "parity of esteem" - a current "buzz" phrase. There was a spirit of co-operation in the classroom where pupil helped pupil and pupil helped teacher.

I admitted quite openly that I too was "only learning" and many of the pupils, again mainly boys, were only too happy to help me. Moreover, I found that many of the girls - who had initially been reluctant about the use of computers - were, by the end of the unit, quite at home in a "hands-on" environment.

I am not, however, looking at this through rose-tinted spectacles. As one problem appeared to be solved, I became aware of other problems, in my case, the main one being that individual pupils do not readily have access to computers and we still had to "book" a period in the computer suite. Such problems can be relatively easily solved.

Since attempting these "experiments" I have become extremely interested in what can be achieved in this area. An assistant headteacher gave me a video of the Anytime, Anywhere Learning Summit 99 and I was inspired by the results many of these pilot schools have achieved. I would like to look at integrated learning systems such as RM's Successmaker. I would like to have more computers in my classroom. I would like every pupil to have a laptop. I would like . . . Yes, but in education Santa Claus does not visit even once a year.

I am aware that my comments are yet another example of the "anecdotal evidence" of the success of computers in Scottish schools. My pupils have achieved a degree of success - they have been motivated enough to try their best to produce work of what I consider to be a higher standard than that they would normally produce.

I have realised - and thankfully not too late - that as a teacher I need to focus on the learning objectives that become possible when pupils have access to the capabilities computers can provide.

I have realised that the future is now being shaped by the present and that it is a future in which there requires to be a re-evaluation of the role of the teacher - if it is to be a meaningful future for the pupils I teach.

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