Teachers: as good as it gets?

2nd May 2003 at 01:00
As the level of ICT use in schools rise, questions still remain as to how best to use this technology to enhance education. Should teachers be using computers to enhance what they have always done, or should the presence of networked technologies change the very nature of learning? The latestinternational study to throw light on this deceptively simple question is the Second Information Technology in Education Study (Sites).

The UK part of the study was conducted by the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) and is available on its website (www.nfer.ac.ukresearch).

Each case study had to satisfy certain basic criteria - technology had to play a substantial role, there had to be evidence of significant change of roles, curriculum or materials, and of measurable "positive student outcomes". The innovation also had to be sustainable and transferable. This last point is highly significant - this was not about one-off, short-term projects but about systemic change. Moreover, these were detailed qualitative studies over an extended period, 1999 - 2002, so there is a good understanding of exactly how the technology was used.

It seems the studies fall into eight clusters, each representing a specific approach to pedagogy, including: tool use; collaborative student research; information management; teacher collaboration; outside communication; product creation; tutorial. In just over 50 per cent of the studies the curriculum changed to accommodate the new approach to teaching which came about as part of the innovation. So by definition, in approaching 50 per cent of the studies the curriculum did not change, presumably since it already accommodated the pedagogic styles in the studies. What is striking about these studies is that very few of them emphasise the transmission of knowledge from teacher to pupil, instead the focus is on student research, communication, creation of product - all elements of personal knowledge building.

However, the positive student outcomes identified in these studies are not often matched to the criteria used to construct standardised tests. This perhaps brings us back to the issues raised in the Digital Disconnect study (The Digital Disconnect: The widening gap between internet-savvy students and their schools, www.pewinternet.orgreports) where "internet savvy" pupils are failing to engage with a school system where personal knowledge building is uncommon, and undervalued. It also offers a perspective on the Impact2 findings, where positive correlations between ICT use and test scores were generally small.

Slowly but surely the evidence is building; pupil use of technology supports learning of a rather different kind from that which tests measure.

Evidence that pupil use of technology improves test scores remains elusive.

It may be that teacher-managed use of technology, through the use of projectors and interactive white boards contributes to raising test scores.

But pupil use of programmed learning materials has yet to be proven to improve scores. There are many possible reasons for this - the studies may be flawed, or incomplete, the material too variable in quality, the time that pupils use it may be too short or maybe, just maybe, when it comes to telling kids stuff, a teacher is as good as it gets.

The final Sites report will be available at www.sitesm2.org. Selected country papers can be found in Journal of Computer Assisted Learning vol 18 No4 December 2002

Angela McFarlane is professor of education and director of learning technology at the Graduate School of Education at the University of Bristol

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