Collaboration strategies take edge off high IT anxieties

March 14, 1997

Christina Preston reports on IT alliances between traditional teacher training institutions and schools.

Information technology in education is on the electoral agenda. In January 1996 Gillian Shephard announced the need for "network literacy for all". In the summer the Labour Party proposed that all school pupils should be given a computer and schools should be connected to the Internet. In December, plans to give computers to teachers were publicised by the Tories. The Department for Education and Employment has already put Pounds 4 million into portable computers for teachers, a forward-looking gesture since it is the teachers who are expected, by implication, not only to be confident and competent in IT, but to lead the lifelong learning of the nation.

But hardware and software provision alone does not create a learning and teaching revolution. Since 1987 the DFEE has spent more than Pounds 200 million on hardware and software. In 1993/94, after the introduction of local management of schools, primary schools spent Pounds 105.6 million: secondary schools spent Pounds 86.9 million. British children have more access to computers than any other nation in the Group of Seven which includes some of the world's richest countries. Britain is also the only G7 country with statutory provision for IT as a core skill in the national curriculum alongside literacy and numeracy.

Nevertheless, there has been little discernible effect on learning. On the basis of its school inspections the Office for Standards in Education is critical of the teaching and use of IT in the great majority of schools. The DFEE's longitudinal study on learning with computers, the Impact Report, finds few measurable results. It concludes that "the majority of school pupils are not yet provided with opportunities to take advantage of the potential of the full range of software, a substantial amount of which is currently available in schools."

Despite advantages in resourcing, fewer than a third of primary school teachers and half of secondary teachers use IT regularly in the classroom in Britain. Reasons for the reluctance of teachers to implement IT are recognised in the strategies for IT teacher education in the United States and the UK where classrooms are already well resourced. In the latest double issue of the Journal of Information Technology for Teacher Education the new editor, Terry Willis of the University of Houston, comments that integrating advanced technologies into classrooms is a complex process that involves personal, group, organisational, institutional and cultural change. Significant change is rare. Mostly educators settle for less, and call it success.

The only British case study, from the University of Oxford, highlights the disparity of attitudes and understanding of IT between history and geography interns in their initial training year. A high level of anxiety was expressed in emotive terms by the historians.

Bridget Somekh of the Scottish Council for Research in Education is a leader in action research methodology in which the teacher becomes the researcher, as well as controlling change processes. Her perspective on change in teacher education in five universities includes consideration of factors such as national and institutional culture, and the interaction, both positive and negative, between these levels.

Somekh's masterly analysis of the recent history of teacher education describes how turbulent changes in 1992 and 1993 undermined the morale of teacher educators, both through criticism of their professional role and in real threats to their job security as funds for teacher training were transferred to the schools.

If Britain lags behind the United States in IT teacher education, this can be directly related to the effects of these sweeping reforms. But new alliances are appearing between traditional teacher education institutions and schools.

Some school management teams are being triggered to consider their IT policy and development plan as a result of Ofsted inspections. Sir James Barrie, a state primary school in Wandsworth, has initiated a programme of whole-staff IT training that builds on the school's existing enthusiasm and vision of IT in the school curriculum. The school's Ofsted inspection report confirmed IT as an area which required development. A solution was available since Wandsworth was offering a realistic budget of Pounds 8,000 to any school which could justify an effective programme of whole-staff IT training.

The head contacted Project Miranda, based at the Institute of Education, London University for external IT consultancy. A collaborative programme was agreed, starting with an audit of staff skills and attitudes. The audit identified a shared staff conviction that multimedia computers could help children learn aural, visual, kinetic and graphical skills and improve their literacy. Staff are trained by their own more expert colleagues and by a Project Miranda team. Administrative and curriculum projects build on existing good practice. Everyone on the staff is attached to an appropriate curriculum development group so that relevant information is passed on. Groups are covering multimedia authoring, Internet communication, literacy and numeracy applications, control, measurement, modelling, administration, professional skills and curriculum resource development. Every staff member has agreed to develop expertise in one area that interests them. Some staff have elected to take accredited courses at the institute; others are planning to publish their action research projects on the Web for other teachers. A Wandsworth education authority mini-inspection in November was enthusiastic about the potential for long-term improvements in the quality of teaching and learning. Government grants for bilingual learners have created another opportunity for teacher education development.

Shammy Batra, a policy-maker in the London borough of Waltham Forest, has set up multimedia in-service training programmes that include accredited courses at the Institute of Education, linked with action research projects in the classroom. Investigating the power of multimedia authorship and communication on the net has boosted the enthusiasm of these London teachers, who need strategies to interest gifted pupils with poor English. Action research techniques ensure that change happens in the teaching environment and that teachers can articulate the gains and the losses. The Waltham Forest project is being replicated in Southwark and in Tower Hamlets in collaboration with Project Miranda. Government pressure on academic secondary schools to increase the use of IT is not strong. There is no national testing, and university entrance does not depend on IT skills. Private schools like Haileybury in Hertfordshire do not even have to follow the national curriculum. But parental opinion is always an important factor in the decisions of good schools.

Haileybury is already well equipped for technology. But the new master and the governing body recently authorised the leasing of 50 portable computers and invested in an infrared wireless network with Internet connections. All the staff and one full class are involved in the first year's in-service programme.

In the first whole staff sessions, the multifaceted nature of the contemplated changes became clear. General issues of policy, curriculum delivery, assessment, monitoring, cost-benefit issues, learning gains and inspection perspectives were fiercely debated. Good practice was shared: concerns about quality and relevance were aired. Enthusiasts and technophobes expressed their views.

By Easter there will be a five-year development plan incorporating a variety of in-service paths and curriculum development projects in IT for Haileybury staff. Partnership with other schools in Britain and abroad, with Institute staff, with specialist freelance consultants, with the computer suppliers and with internal Haileybury experts will be encouraged.

These new alliances in state and private schools are grounded in the research practice described in The Journal of Information Technology for Teacher Education. Brent Robinson, the founder editor, prophetically expressed the complexity of IT education as a situation where "students, teachers and teacher educators each have several roles to fill and valuable expertise and knowledge to share with each other."

Brent, a leading personality in this young research community, died last September. He is mourned, but celebrated too in the multifaceted projects that are giving practical acknowledgement to his vision.

Christina Preston is director of Project Miranda, Institute of Education, London University.

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