TV for the technophobes

4th October 1996 at 01:00
NCET-TV produces programmes for teachers who want to become IT literate. Meet the challenge and set your video. The children sit around synthesiser keyboards and stare intently. They're wearing headphones, wagging their fingers and bobbing their heads as a beat plays inside. As music lessons go, this is surely the quietest on the planet.

The music department at Gryphon School in Sherbourne, Dorset, is well-resourced. There is a keyboard on each desk, as well as Apple Mac computers on which children can write music as they might write words on a word processor. Gryphon has discovered how technology allows children to do work at a pace that suits them as they develop their musical talents.

It is good work - and it has impressed the National Council for Educational Technology (NCET). Today the NCET's Mick Thomas is here with a crew to film a new series of NCET-TV:Teaching and Learning with IT. In fact, Mick and the crew have moved into the area for a day or so, visiting other local schools, including Winton Boys' and Thomas Hardye, and seeing how they use music technology for this month's new series which started on Wednesday.

The NCET uses all kinds of other media - leaflets, advertisements, exhibitions - to disseminate good practice and workable ideas. But, as the NCET's Jenny Brown explains, still only one third of teachers make regular use of IT in their work. "We often ended up talking to the converted, so we needed a new way to reach teachers, all of whom now need to acquire IT skills as part of the job."

NCET-TV is now one year old, and the tripods, lights and trappings have been around the country to capture the uses of information technology in schools. When I visited them, they were half-way through a new programme about music, portable computers and a kids' IT centre.

"OK, we'll do Maggie's link now," says the producer, John Riley. Maggie Philbin is the programme's presenter and living proof, as a confessed non-expert, that anyone can do IT. She is, however, unusually expert in learning the script, seemingly written on a bus ticket, and delivering it word perfect. She is putting on a braver-than-usual face today, because her make-up kit was left behind. But the IT show goes on.

The first nine NCET-TV programmes have looked at subjects as diverse as maths and geography, dealing with a wide range of technologies (such as the Internet and video-conferencing) as well as ideas about gender and special needs. It would have been easy to interview manufacturers and a few visionaries, then wave a camera at a school. Instead, the programmes deal with practical applications of IT and real teachers. We watch an art teacher enthusing about using CD-Roms to look at classic paintings. We hear from a headteacher of a school where IT no longer depends on a few staff talking about a culture "where everyone helps everyone".

In countering teachers' fears the IT co-ordinator notes that teachers set high standards for themselves in contrast with children who are not discouraged by failure when they're trying to do something tricky. Another teacher tells how she felt that the computer used to see her coming and say to itself: "Aye, aye. She's here!" Several case studies look at schools using portables. In one, each member of staff has a Pocket Book palmtop computer - and the idea of an "IT culture" has come alive. In a clip on special needs we see a teacher excited about a program for sign language. She types into the machine and it writes in signs. She uses the mouse deftly and you really feel that this is something to have a crack at. If there were an award for putting the case for IT, she would win it.

For the most part, the old adage that the brain starts working from birth and stops the second you point a microphone at it does not apply to NCET-TV - although sometimes you want to hear the director shout: "Cut! No sorry, start again. That's a platitude!" Television is expensive. Each programme costs more than Pounds 20,000, and the BBC charges another Pounds 2,000-odd to use its night time Learning Zone slot. To make matters worse, when NCET-TV invited teachers to register for programme fact sheets, 12,000 teachers responded - landing NCET-TV with a hefty print and postage bill. This year, there's a charge to cover mailing costs.

But the very size of the mailing list also shows why television is such a good way of putting across a message. The NCET has been conducting a major evaluation of the series, and has found that it has been widely used. Its user groups told of IT co-ordinators using clips in school meetings, teachers given responsibility for recording and a trainer who used one programme 18 times.

Jenny Brown says that everyone has ideas about what NCET-TV should do. And, although many of the suggestions it has received would not be appropriate for programmes aimed at the two-thirds of teachers not using IT, the new series will deal with several new themes, including those timeless issues such as progression,differentiation and careers, buying a new computer, how to manage with poor resources and getting support for IT.

As the programme is shown at 4am, maybe the biggest challenge for the least IT-literate will be getting the video recorder to wake up at dead of night.

NCET-TV is on BBC2 every Wednesday from 4 am to 4.30 am. For copies of the programme guide phone 01203 847101. A one-year subscription to the fact-sheet mailing costs Pounds 6. Recordings are available on video, in sets of three programmes at Pounds 19.50. Details from Christine Holyfield, National Council for Educational Technology, Science Park, Coventry CV4 7JJ. All of these details are available on the Internet at

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