Teachers' choice

11th February 2000 at 00:00
"Minority" software is proving more valuable in many lessons, according to a survey on the impact of ICT on learning in secondary schools. While small numbers of teachers are enthusiastic about some products not used by the majority, other high-profile programs are used in almost all subjects to varying effect.

Surprisingly, the Fischer Family TrustRM survey, conducted across 11 subject areas, is the first questionnaire to independently assess teachers' opinions about software use in secondary schools. About 1,500 randomly selected teachers evaluated specific products as having "very little", "some", "significant" or "substantial" learning impact and frequency of use. Results were sorted according to the number of schools that owned the product and also in order of impact rating.

The responses show that the major applications remain popular, with the trusty Microsoft perennials like Word and Excel shining through, but many beneficial products are being overlooked. The question is whether these lesser-known programs would live up to the needs of large numbers of schools or simply provide a greater audience for criticism.

As expected, the biggest range of products are used in IT lessons, but the results raised a few surprises. The most commonly owned program was Excel (79 per cent of the 139 responding schools have a copy), followed closely by Word (75 per cent). However, the most effective IT product was judged to be Microsoft Office, although it was nominated by a smaller proportion of IT teachers (36 per cent). Interestingly, ClarisWorks came second but was used in only six schools.

The most widespread art applications were Word and Photoshop, both owned by about one-third of respondents, but garnering average results in terms of frequency of use and learning impact. Again, Word was used in most schools' design and technology lessons (73 per cent), with Crocodile Clips (51 per cent) a distant second. In terms of use and impact, less common products scored higher, such as TechSoft Design Tools and PCB Wizard.

History gained the least response in the survey with 90 replies from schools. Approximately one-third of these schools used the Internet, Word and Encarta in history classes - the latter being the most widely approved. The Second World War CD-Rom had the most substantial impact, though only in three schools.

In geography, Publisher, owned by 13 per cent of responding schools, was appraised as the most effective, followed by the Violent Earth CD-Rom, which was owned by even fewer. Encarta was used in most geography classes (42 pe cent) but not very frequently or to great effect.

Physical education (PE) is often overlooked when it comes to ICT, yet 131 schools replied to the survey. The results revealed that many sports teachers are also getting it round the wrong way. The most commonly owned software, World of Sport Examined, was rated as one of the least effective; while the most effective, Word and Encarta, were used by only 14 and 10 schools respectively.

RM's Ray Fleming noted that there was more agreement in subjects such as science, "where it's more obvious to find ways to use IT", particularly with products such as "the Microsoft biggies, because they come bundled with lots of schools' packages and are heavily advertised". In order of proportion of ownership, the main contenders were Excel, Word, Encarta and the Internet. Word, owned by half, came second; Insight, owned by about one-third, came third, followed by Excel. The surprise winner (though not for the 16 out of 126 respondents who know the merits of the product) was Crocodile Clips.

Maths generated the greatest response from 149 schools. SuccessMaker, used by 16 per cent of these respondents, was awarded by far the highest impact rating. The more prevalent Excel, used by 81 per cent, scored the second best rating, while WinLogo, used in about half of schools' maths lessons, was placed third.

The range of English programs was very poor - almost as few as used in PE classes. Word won on both counts, used by three-quarters of the 97 respondents. In a unanimous vote, all schools with Successmaker said it made a significant learning impact. PowerPoint was less impressive but still came third.

Music had a better variety of resources that veered away from the usual stock products. The most used and appreciated was Cubase, owned by about half of the 136 respondents, while the 20 per cent who use Logic also recommended it highly.

Modern foreign languages, attracting 146 respondents, was a mixed bag. Word was the only product to score well in both impact and ownership. Vektor Essentials and Tele-Texts were judged the most valuable products, but only by a couple of schools that use them.

Fleming hoped the survey would be used by teachers to see which products had the most benefit, rather than how many schools owned them, and by software publishers to identify subjects where more choice is needed. "I think the survey strips away the marketing money to show what teachers really think is valuable," he said.

The report is available on the Fischer Family Trust website: www.fischertrust.org

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