It's idealistic to expect one ICT training course to suit all teachers, but self-study is highly rated, writes Douglas Blane.
Although the pound;230 million allocated by the New Opportunities Fund to train UK teachers and school librarians in information and communications technology may sound generous, it works out at a rather modest pound;450 per teacher. At commercial rates, that would buy just over a day of a computer consultant's time, which means schools and education authorities need to choose their training providers with considerable care.
At Nitshill Primary School in Glasgow, all eight members of the teaching staff, including headteacher Bill Roddie, have embarked on a self-study course called the Learning Schools Programme. Developed by the Open University and RM, a leading computer services supplier, and managed and supported by the Scottish Council for Educational Technology, the LSP has been recommended by 17 education authorities as an appropriate provider for the NOF training, and 2,000 Scottish teachers are now booked on the course.
"It's early days yet, but I feel it's going quite well," says Mr Roddie. "The teachers are very enthusiastic. They work on it in the morning before the pupils arrive and also after they go home at night."
An appealing feature of the course for most of the teachers is its whole-school approach, which means assignments can be tackled in mutually supportive groups. "It's good to be able to work together," says senior teacher Helen Knox. "It gives you confidence."
Confidence is crucial. The National Grid for Learning targets for 2002 state that "teachers will be confidentcompetent in classroom teaching using ICT", which suggests these desirable qualities are virtually identical. But in a fast-moving field where so far teachers have been largely self-taught, a measure of competence without a corresponding level of confidence - or even much knowledge of the terminology - is widespread. This is not ideal for a course that aims to cater for everyone by providing different routes through the material depending on the outcome of a self-assessment exercise.
"The first thing we had to do was a profile of needs," says senior teacher Morag McKe. "But I wasn't sure what the computer was asking. So Bill helped us through it and clarified what it said. And we realised we could do a lot of it already."
"The course comes in a thick folder," says Douglas Mathers, "which you dip into rather than starting at the front and working through. It's complicated. No doubt it will get easier as it becomes more familiar, but we don't really have the time to figure out how to use the course."
Time is a particular concern and the consensus is that the estimated duration of the course - 20 to 30 hours - is insufficient. "I've spent over five hours on it already," says Ms McKie, "without getting on the first rung yet."
"It's a lot of work," agrees Mary Mitchell, "and will take a lot more than 30 hours to complete."
The perfect solution to ICT training in schools almost certainly does not exist. Glasgow is piloting six training providers in 18 schools, of which Nitshill is one."I've been to several meetings with the other headteachers," says Mr Roddie, "and they've all had some negative comments about their courses - mostly about the time it takes or the style of delivery.
"Courses where a trainer takes all the teachers through exactly the same thing - the opposite extreme to ours - isn't ideal either, because it takes no account of differentiation."
The Nitshill teachers make four key comments about ICT training. They feel that clarity in a course is more important than comprehensiveness; that aiming at all levels of previous knowledge with one set of notes may be too ambitious; that drawing immediate attention to everything the learner does not know is bad psychology; and that minimising the nature of the task by underestimating the time it will take is unhelpful.
Despite their misgivings, their growing familiarity with ICT is already having a beneficial effect on their pupils. The Primary 1s have been searching the Internet recently for data on tigers in the wild and sending e-mail messages to each other and a friend in Japan.
"We got a new screen-saver," says Ms Knox, "but when it appeared we lost the sound. I showed one of the children how to fix it, he showed someone else and now they can all do it."