Plenty of students have access to the Internet. But how many know how to use it effectively? Anat Arkin meets two teachers who are pointing the way.
When members of the English department at Dixons city technology college in Bradford were looking for information about genetically modified food, they ran into the kinds of problems their students know only too well.
They may not have felt as frustrated as the student who searched the Internet for information about joints and sports injuries and came up with "Wounded Knee, North Carolina", but their trawl through the Internet still produced a huge amount of information of little value.
The teachers' research into GM food was one of several exercises in a departmental in-service project to improve the teaching of information handling skills at Dixons. The brainchild of librarian Lynn Barrett and individual needs co-ordinator Mal Danks, the project was developed after they had identified problems, not just with the way students were tackling research assignments, but also with some of the assignments themselves.
"Students were sent to the library to research things that they couldn't find the answers to because we didn't have the resources," says Lynn Barrett. "They were also being sent to do things that they didn't have the ability to do or that they could do too easily. There needed to be differentiation in the projects they were being asked to do."
In a school with 300 personal computers, all with access to the Internet, there was a crying need to teach students how to use this resource more effectively.
A whole-school approach to teaching and learning information handling was needed, and four years ago Lynn Barrett and Mal Danks began working on a model that could also be applied to other schools.
To encourage teachers to differentiate their assignments, they worked out what students might be expected to be able to do at each key stage. At key stage 2, for example, students should be able to identify specific facts in a specified source. At key stage 3 they should be able to use more than one source to identify specific information, hile at key stage 4 they would be expected to be able to gather information relating to a topic or concept from a variety of sources. This skills progression went right back to key stage 1, so that students operating below their age could be given appropriate tasks.
Lynn Barrett and Mal Danks then began working with teachers on planning research assignments. Unlike traditional "library lessons", these were linked directly to the curriculum. "It's very difficult for a committee to decide on a whole-school approach to information handling and impose it on teachers. They have to see it as something that is going to enhance the curriculum and their students' learning," says Ms Barrett.
She and Mal Danks developed a series of core lessons in information handling that they initially delivered themselves and that English staff are now using in their own classes. They have also been running two-hour in-service sessions to help teachers teach skills that they have taken for granted or, in the case of the Internet, have probably never learned at all.
Dixons is now offering a similar course for people involved in developing independent learning in other schools. The one-day course looks at developing a whole-school approach to information handling skills and provides participants with materials to use in their own schools.
The response so far has been very positive, according to Lynn Barrett, who says: "The Internet has led to a realisation of the need for work on information handling skills in schools."
The next course on skills for the information age will be held at Dixons CTC in Bradford on June 12. Details from Lynn Barrett on 01274 776777. l The first Becta TES ICTin Practice awards, sponsored by BT, will be presented by Lord Puttnam next January at the Bett show. The awards, covering England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, are to promote and reward exemplary ICT practice and to discover practice that can be widely emulated. Each award winner will receive pound;2,500, with an additional pound;2,500 going to their school or organisation. For more information: www.becta.org.ukpracticeawards