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Tipping-the balance

Tim Brig-house says ICT in education is close to reaching a critical point in its impact on teaching and learning

In his book The Tipping Point Malcolm Gladwell poses a big question: what triggers change? He concludes that the climate has to be right for change, as does the timing.

We haven't quite reached this tipping point in the use of learning technologies in school. To the typical headteacher, technology is just a tool for management and communication and few heads and heads of faculty in secondary schools have tipped over to begin using it for learning. Most haven't considered, say, using a CAL (computer-assisted learning) program in maths or explored the possibility of using communications technology for e-tutoring.

An exception is David Broadfield, headteacher at the Robin Hood School in Birmingham, who began using learning technologies over 10 years ago. Both the head and deputy head of Robin Hood have kept abreast of new technology and now all their teachers use it in the classroom - it's an impressive sight. There are probably a few other schools like Robin Hood, but not many.

For the tipping point to be reached, you need experts; people with the knowledge, skills and enthusiasm to push change forward. Broadfield is a good coach and guides and inspires staff to use learning technology creatively. We need more experts in education if we are to reach the tipping point, but they are in short supply.

But there's no point in a head being enthusiastic about learning technology if the head of maths isn't, which is why good coaching in the use of technology is so essential. By coaching I don't just mean showing teachers how to switch on the computer, but how they can use ICT for teaching and learning. Inspired heads like Broadfield can help, but we need a much larger pool of coaches. And for this to happen, we need a change in the way educational software is licenced and sold. Buy a typical CAL program and you'll usually receive a large licence fee too. Software companies could change their licensing system to cut the price of the kit but charge an upfront fee for coaching. After all, it's to the software companies'

advantage for teachers to be well trained in their products because if people can use their software well, they will want to have it in their classroom.

The tipping point will only be reached when a critical mass of students and teachers can use ICT confidently and effectively and if there is good access to ICT in schools. Perhaps 70-80 per cent of secondary school pupils have a PC and internet access at home, even in the poorest areas, but they don't feel they have similar access at school. There's a lot to be said for making sure kids have access to computers at school, not just for computer-assisted learning but to get them into the habit of using the internet and the tools that are part of learning technologies. Schools are on the edge of exploiting this. If pupils are able to undertake individual learning for themselves, think of a situation when a teacher is sick.

Pupils could go to a learning centre, get their own work files and get on with their learning, which is a better way of spending time with supply staff.

Some schools have an achievement culture and these have the energy to take advantage of learning technology. Those that don't are busy trying to establish that culture, but many simply don't have the time, energy or resources to use it. Ironically, these are the schools that would benefit most from using learning technology.

I would like to see intensive support for these schools, maybe for a term or a year. A support system would help them get over the initial hurdles of using learning technology. The Department for Education and Skills already supports one such project with its Test Bed scheme, which gives schools considerable ICT access plus lots of support. While it's too early to report fully, I would be amazed if standards aren't improving as a result.

In five to 10 years, learning technology will be ubiquitous in schools.

Change can occur randomly, but we are more likely to get the changes we want when we put in place the final elements that can make things happen.

If we strive to do this, we will drive the uptake of learning technology in schools. And then it won't be long before we reach the tipping point.

Tim Brighouse, visiting professor at the Institute of Education, London and Commissioner for London Schools, was talking to George Cole

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