What does good look like?

31st March 2006 at 01:00
The use of ICT in UK schools is 'sporadic' and 'disappointing', claims a study. What can be done to improve matters? Jack Kenny reports

It is optimistic to expect teachers to change their practice in a school that hasn't changed," says Niel McLean, executive director, educational practice, with overall responsibility for institutional development and teaching and learning at the British Educational Communications and Technology Agency (Becta). Developing institutions as well as individuals is Becta's strategic aim.

He argues: "Look at every sector, especially retail and banking, and they have been transformed by ICT, have undergone profound change. In schools, the transformational technologies have not taken off, whereas something like the interactive whiteboard, which is not transformational, has.

"One of the things that we got completely wrong with NOF (New Opportunities Fund) ICT training was to assume that individual teachers were sufficiently in control of their own destinies. The assumption was that you only had to give teachers a period of ICT training and all would happen. However, the school stayed the same and the system stayed the same.

"What we now have to do," says Niel, "is to formulate what good looks like in a school and then produce a tool kit that will show schools clearly how to get there. In the past, schools had to demonstrate they had policies; now they have to show that those policies have classroom impact. All the materials from the various agencies are around but they are not sequenced well for school. That is what we have to do: make it joined up."

The question "What does good look like?" was answered when Becta's ICT in Practice judges went into Jonathan Boyle's classroom. That was in 2002.

They could see a teacher who had rethought his teaching. Jonathan has moved from being the sage on the stage to the guide on the side. Quite simply, he placed on the intranet at Thomas Telford school, Shropshire, information that he wanted his students to know. He used video clips to create a multimedia file of complex skills.

He also used Camtasia, a program that records the teacher's voice and everything that is on the teacher's screen as the lesson progresses. It is video production in real time and it can be replayed by students, used by ones who have been absent, or used by students on another site.

If design and technology teachers are not careful they can spend a great deal of time explaining, and explaining some more. Jonathan just referred the students to the Camtasia files. The time saved, and Thomas Telford's unique timetable, meant that Jonathan could sit down for half an hour with one pupil to ensure that skills, techniques and problems were thoroughly discussed.

The balance between teaching and learning was shifted in favour of learning. The cost here is the infrastructure and time. Take a short-term view and it looks expensive; take the long view and it is economic. The point is that Jonathan's prowess as a teacher was allowed to flourish because he was in a school with an infrastructure that supported and encouraged the things that he wanted to do (he is now a deputy principal at Walsall academy, in the West Midlands).

Another college with an infrastructure that supports a cadre of skilled teachers is Aquinas college, in Belfast. It is a college where remarkable things are happening in ICT terms. The college is part of Northern Ireland's C2k. (The C2k managed service is a part of the Education Technology Strategy for Northern Ireland.) One of the original beliefs of C2k was that teachers would be liberated from technical concerns so that they could be free to teach and to reflect on the role of ICT.

You see that in action at Aquinas. ICT is managed in the college by a young enthusiastic team under the guidance of Eugene Leneghan, head of ICT and geography. Their conversation is refreshingly free from worries about the technicalities; they have focused on the pedagogy and the curriculum. Two of the teachers, Peter Dobbin and Stephen Sames, have reached the short-listing stage of the ICT in Practice Awards. They are not isolated examples but representative of a team that is transforming learning for their students across the curriculum. The ICT core group has developed skills necessary to use ICT intensively and they have transmitted those skills to other schools. The team is backed by a principal, Michael McClean, who is as enthusiastic as his team.

The scope of the national problem faced by Becta is outlined in the recently published study InterActive Education: Teaching and Learning in the Information Age from the University of Bristol. The study discovered that the use of ICT in schools was "sporadic" and "disappointing" in the UK.

The study points out that few teachers make full use of computers in the classroom and that many teachers fear that computers would interfere with learning, particularly in the humanities and creative subjects, and use ICT only for administration and routine tasks. The report comments that schools are continuing to see ICT as being about equipment acquisition.

The kind of synchronicity between government agencies that Niel McLean is talking about has proved difficult in a world that seems obsessed with trends and technological fashion, moving rapidly from one scheme to the next without a pause for thought or real reflection. It will take some very effective leadership, nationally and in the schools, to ensure that it happens.

First, a sizable slice of the teaching force is still to be convinced that there is ICT beyond the whiteboard.

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