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October 16, 1998

WHAT: In the third of our series on key skills Stephen Heppell offers advice on how to teach students to make the most of information technology without panicking

WHY: Computer skills enable students to trawl the Internet or library to aid their work, handle data, craft essays and diagrams, email peers or tutors and, finally, get a job


Software and hardware are changing fast and this is going to continue and even accelerate. There are two consequences: First, a lot can happen in the three years of a typical undergraduate career and for this reason it is wise to focus on the broader skills of operating a computer, rather than on one particular software package.

It is less important that a student can work on a unique software application, such as a particular version of WordPerfect, than that they are able to understand the defining functions of most word processors and apply them to their writing.

Second, the capability of incoming students is advancing as rapidly as the technology. This applies to both those arriving straight from school and to those mature students arriving from the workplace.

Yesterday's roomful of wide-eyed computer virgins learning a suite of standard applications has gone. Students enter higher education with a broad range of technical expertise, with a diversity of hardware and with a multiplicity of mail service providers.

Students coming directly from school have a curriculum that prescribes minimum levels of capability, but many have skills well above the minimum.

So, what strategies work in these new and changing circumstances? Just as agreeing a book list with the library well ahead of the semester start is essential, so it is essential to agree the software packages required to complete a module and ensure that adequate training resources are in place.

At the departmental or faculty level, if there are essential tasks or applications (for example building 3D animations in architecture or exploring Avid video-editing equipment in media degrees) there will certainly also be strong one-on-one training materials available for students to use in their own time, at their own pace.

Some software comes with its own comprehensive help built in, often with complex examples to illustrate the power of an application. The availability of good support material should be a deciding factor in any university's software purchase decisions.

What use is cheap software if the cost of learning to use it is astronomical? Beyond this kind of in-the-box help, other training materials vary from largely ineffectual video examples (watch me and learn...) to bespoke CD-Rom products that offer at-your-desk support for both basics and advanced techniques.

Key2's CD series offers fullscale screen recordings of how to do everything from basics to what the firm describes as cool stuff and masterclasses. These individual materials improve students' capability at little cost to either the student or the faculty. But an important organisational detail is the provision of (ideally) 24-hour access to the computer equipment to fit in with individuals' needs and schedules.

CD-Rom tutorials can of course be borrowed on short-loan tickets, just like library books. Many universities have found that a mentor system will allow existing undergraduates to trade their support of incoming freshers for better access to a computer suite.

As with the infamous pyramid selling, capability spreads from student to student at an almost exponential rate, again at minimal cost. A combination of self-help materials and mentor support will yield rapid results. Beyond this immediate support at faculty level there are three cast iron rules that will minimise the problems universities face in improving students' information and communications technology skills:

* Do anything to encourage regular use and activity. Many universities find that the simplest and most effective strategy for increasing the ICT capability of incoming students is to place Ethernet sockets in the bedrooms of halls of residence, advertise the fact well in before the students arrive and wait. Regular daily use breeds capability. Similarly, 24-hour access suites are dramatically more effective than 12 or 18-hour access.

* Motivate student use. Simply requiring students to word-process their essays will neither change the world nor their levels of capability. On the other hand offering a first rough mark of word-processed drafts, which can then be refined and finessed, will immediately and dramatically improve motivation and capability. Similarly making an email debate between students a key precursor to a face-to-face seminar with the tutor will dramatically turn around the students' capability with email and, as many universities have found, also signal an early warning of poor motivation or shallow engagement. Make it part of the course and capability happens.

* Reward student capability. Many universities now offer a computer "driving test'', but tying this into the minimum pay rates offered by university student employment agencies is massively motivating in the present impecunious climate.

Students with computer capability can and do attract better part-time work. Advertise and support this. A substantial group of students will not respond to self-help materials or to these carrot and stick policies. Those mature students who have minimal exposure to computer technology often report fear, stress, alarm, despondency and, worst of all, a loss of their fragile self-esteem whenever they are sat near a computer.

However, research suggests that it is not technophobia at work here but a simple lack of vocabulary. Not knowing the proper names for the components of a computer screen display leaves a person fearful of looking a complete fool, and this is at the root of the stress and fear.

For this group a quiet series of sessions around a large projection screen, literally becoming comfortable with the vocabulary of computer life, is the most effective capability builder. Armed with the right words, asking for help from peers in an open access lab is far less daunting.

Finally, it is worth remembering that many universities come at the whole problem from the wrong direction. Students by and large these days are ICT capable, but that capability is often with some other application, some other computer or some mail system other than the university's standard.

Standardising university procedures and systems does not reduce training problems, it exacerbates them. The more you prescribe, the more students fail to fit that prescription and are then in need of support and training. The opposite approach is more likely to provide a cheap strategy that will be future-proof.

Design systems on the basis of student diversity, and the need to support or develop student capability will immediately diminish.

A large number of network points, and a university policy wedded to individual choice, with Internet protocols as the only standards, will enable you to get by with a lean resource of self-help materials and enthusiastic mentoring. And that is cheap and achievable for all of us.

Stephen Heppell is director of Ultralab at Anglia Polytechnic University and a non-executive director of Key2.

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