Trainees in touch with tomorrow
Philippa Carr is flanked by four sixth-form girls. She calls them her GNVQ students, but they look more like fashion models. While Ms Carr fiddles with the telephone, the glamorous four rehearse the questions that they want to ask their colleagues at Northfleet School for Girls about university, college and gap years.
Suddenly, the video screen in front of them lights up and four equally well-turned out girls come on-line and the discussion begins. Welcome to the multimedia classroom - courtesy of video-conferencing.
Philippa Carr and three of her colleagues - Teri Williams, Nicholas Tucker and Lynne Thompson - are all student teachers on teaching practice at Coombe Girls' School in Surrey. As part of their six-week internship at the New Malden school, they have been involved in a pilot project designed to introduce trainee teachers to the joys of new communications technologies, well before they start teaching properly.
Now the four happily conduct lessons between their school and the others involved in the pilot using video-conferencing, e-mail and Internet facilities set up in the school's learning resources centre.
The initiative, funded by British Telecom and supported by the Teacher Training Agency and the National Council for Educational Technology, has given more than 50 student teachers on one-year PGCE courses from several higher education institutions, the opportunity to familiarise themselves with these hi-tech teaching tools.
Hundreds of newly qualified teachers enter the profession unprepared for life in the multimedia classroom.
Nicholas Tucker, in his last six months of RE training at Roehampton Institute, says: "A two-hour introductory word-processing course is the closest most student teachers get to working with the latest technologies. And it is usually left up to us to pick up any knowledge that happens to be floating around during the customary six-week teaching practice in a school."
Nicholas Tucker is luckier than most. He gained first-hand knowledge of the multimedia revolution when he worked in industry both here and in the United States before training to be a teacher.
If the plan, which involves six host schools and six institutions around the UK, is successful it may have big spin-off benefits for newly qualified teachers.
John Warner, the British Telecom education officer in charge of the programme, says his company saw the need for student teachers to understand computer technology for both classroom and administrative use.
Thankfully, the schools which agreed to take part in the project had some form of communication technology in place and BT only had to provide the Pounds 2,000 it cost to install the telephone lines for Internet access, the camera for video-conferencing and initial training for staff.
"The ways in which the student teachers have been using the equipment have been thought of by them. What we did was to sow the seeds, tell them that out there is this huge resource that they can draw on and use as part of their teaching," says Mr Warner.
Some of these uses have been innovative, to say the least. English students at Coombe are planning to use video-conferencing facilities to interview and perform poems for a poet whose work they have been studying. The Internet has come in handy for turning up valuable resources for astronomy classes at one school in Fife and several others have been livening up modern language classes with joint classroom activities with schools in France and Germany.
The TTA has been keeping a close eye on the project and will be helping BT to evaluate the outcome to see how it has influenced the student teachers' confidence and competence in using new technology.
Scott Geddes from the TTA says that it is not possible to blame any one person or institution for student teachers' lack of confidence and competence in using IT. The blame list is endless: teacher training courses are overcrowded, students come with widely differing computer skills and tutors are not comfortable with new technology.
However, he says: "We cannot afford to be complacent about how badly prepared students are in this area.
"Therefore, the agency was keen to support any initiative that might ensure teachers new to the profession become comfortable with the technologies as soon as possible and close the gap between the reality of college and teaching life."
Thanks to the pilot project, Teri Williams, who is training to be a technology teacher, is no longer a technophobe. She says: "Finding time at college to use what computers were available to their full potential is very hard, but during our training period we set aside time to gain some knowledge of information technology and its many uses. When I start teaching it will be nice to know I have that background knowledge."
She adds: "Whereas other teachers in say, English or science, can share work ideas with colleagues using the fax or e-mail, technology teachers can't. Can you imagine sending a block of wood over the fax?" Hi-tech teaching tools, including CD-Rom machines stand wall-to-wall in some schools and student teachers can be nervous about entering these institutions knowing that they have less IT knowledge than the children they are to teach.
"Some of these kids readily do their homework on home computers and use the Internet as a research tool," says Teri Williams. "If we are not on their wavelength, then we will be in trouble."
The NCET has been aware of the highly variable IT competence of NQTs, but recognises there are a lot of factors to consider.
Ruth Bourne, the council's senior programme officer, says: "With the changes in teacher education in recent years there are an awful lot of concerns around. There are a lot of work and issues to be squeezed into the time a student teacher has. Information technology, perhaps, gets squeezed further along the list."
She says: "The NCET is looking closely at what experience students are getting and also the issue of teacher confidence and competence in the technology. We have produced a Training Tomorrow's Teachers in Information Technology brochure as a negotiating tool to keep IT on the teacher training agenda."
However, if last year's Office for Standards in Education report, which suggests that 76 per cent of NQTs in secondary and primary schools admit they were not well prepared to use IT in teaching and learning, is anything to go by, not many of today's student teachers would measure up to any of its "seven elements of IT capability".
"Although the BT project is not a huge one, it cuts across quite a range of schools and institutions and subjects. It should give some quite targeted experience," says Ruth Bourne.
Jacquie Nunn, English tutor at the Roehampton Institute, says: "It is over-exaggerating the case to say that every child has access to IT, but there are large numbers who do. Students teachers are at a disadvantage if they are not aware of this and cannot access that technology themselves. This project is about what you do with information technology and overcoming your fears. "
Training Tomorrow's Teachers in Information Technology is available from the NCET, Milburn Hill Road, Science Park, Coventry CV4 7JJ.
The Teacher Training Agency, PO Box 3210, Chelmsford, Essex CM13WA