When good ICT is used well, it can produce remarkable results in the classroom.
The benefits of Information Communication Technology (ICT) in classrooms have been communicated so forcefully by the Government that it's tempting to dismiss them as propaganda, or at the very least a defence for the huge financial commitment to the cause.

Indeed, investment in ICT has more than quadrupled in primary schools since 1998 (pounds 3,600 in 1998 to pounds 14,800 in 2004) and more than doubled in secondary since 1998 (pounds 40,100 in 1998 to pounds 88,600 in 2004).

But Leo Gilbert, head of English at Plashet School in East London, reflects the thinking of most teachers when he says: "I'm convinced ICT makes a huge difference to students' learning. In this modern age, a major part of young people's relationship with the world is via a screen. Students become so much more engaged and motivated in the learning process and ultimately gain more confidence."

In addition, Gilbert says, you can have 30 students working on the same exercise, all at different levels. "And with good software, they don't even realise they are working at different levels."

Not surprisingly, different forms of ICT take children time to get used to. But increasingly, software is being produced to take them from the cradle to the grave of their education. The range and quality of ICT products for schools has improved dramatically in a very short period of time, according to Philip Collie, managing director of Schoolzone, which provides independent product evaluations for teachers. "There is now so much competition that it's driving up standards. Quality is also improved as a result of evaluations like ours. For instance, if a piece of software is given a poor rating, the publisher changes the product accordingly. That's part of the point of evaluations."

Justin Baron of the software producer Sibelius, an award winner at last month's BETT educational technology show at Olympia in London, says: "One of our music programmes, Compass, contains all the essential elements of composition including melody, harmony, rhythm and scales - and you can start using it at seven-years-old and work your way up to become a professional composer."

The acclaimed benefits of ICT are backed up by independent research. One recent study revealed that ICT effectively can make around half a grade difference at GCSE and contributes to more motivated and better behaved learners. "The growing use of ICT in schools isn't about modernising the country - it's about actually improving learning," says Ray Barker, director of BESA, the trade association for educational supplies organisations. "Other countries are increasingly turning to the UK because they are fascinated with how well we are doing it."

Meanwhile, Mary McLaughlin, headteacher at Notre Dame High School in Glasgow, points to the advantages for teachers. "ICT helps teachers in the same way it helps anyone else in terms of being a great management tool and it can get rid of routine assessments. But the most exciting ways in which it helps teachers is by enabling them to explore new styles of teaching," she says.

Bad news is that ICT doesn't reduce workloads - in fact, it can do quite the opposite. "ICT gives teachers access to a whole plethora of information and teaching hints and you need to commit time and energy to making the best use of that," she says.

Among the most popular forms of ICT among teachers are electronic interactive whiteboards. Little wonder when you consider that research from the University of Nottingham has found that, if used effectively, whiteboards can improve grades. While the technology - which helps teachers deliver exciting and engaging lessons by the use of video clips, using the internet or making interactive presentations - is relatively new, the latest figures show that 63 per cent of primary schools and 92 per cent of secondary schools already have them.

Video conferencing, while having been around a long time, is also growing in usage, largely due to massive government funding. Richard Selwyn of the DfES-funded British Educational Communications and Technology Agency (Becta), explains: "Video conferencing has all the benefits of ICT and more because of the interactive collaboration. In some schools, where children don't get much of a chance to travel, it can mean virtually visiting places ranging from Robin Island in South Africa to a rural school in Germany."

Video conferencing is used mostly in citizenship and language lessons. "Kids enjoy hooking up with their twin school overseas at lunchtimes. The advantage for teachers is that once it's been set up, input is minimal. The young people just get on with it."

Downsides of ICT include teachers spending more time researching the best product to buy than using it in the classroom. Useful filters, such as schoolzone.co.uk, provide teacher-reviewed products. The emergence of ICT champions within schools are also helping overcome this hurdle.

Training is a further issue. "Other professionals are not expected to train themselves in their own time on their own computer," complains one teacher. However, the Government has invested money into getting more teachers trained during working hours and there is a rise in confidence reported among teachers in using ICT.

Shortage of computer hardware - as well as technical support - can pose problems too, according to Philip Collie. "Funding doesn't seem to be so accessible for hardware as software and without sophisticated hardware, computers can be slow or they can't keep up with the latest software," he says.

Many teachers protest that there aren't enough computers. Leo Gilbert says: "We use laptops in classrooms where we can, but we only have a handful of them. Otherwise, I try to book into computer suites, which are often already booked out by other teachers."

On a more positive note, over 99 per cent of schools in England have been connected to the internet since March 2002, of which 69 per cent of primary and 99 per cent of secondary schools now have a connection at broadband speeds appropriate to their needs. The only exception is independent schools, which have some way to catch up when it comes to broadband connections.

E-learning Credits (ELCs)

TO BOOST access to ICT and multimedia resources in English schools, the Government has set aside a pounds 100m annual cash fund for teachers to spend on the software and digital content they need for pupils aged four to 18. The total budget will have amounted to pounds 330m by the time the current scheme ends in August 2006 - calculated as a pounds 1,000 cash fund per school each year, plus nearly pounds 10 per pupil.

Initially, take-up of the funds was slow. "At best, there was a last- minute August frenzy to spend ELCs," says Philip Collie, managing director of Schoolzone. "But with better evaluations of products, more publicity of E-learning credits and schools having learnt from past experiences, schools are getting much better at spending their ELCs wisely."

As Leo Gilbert, head of English at Plashet School in East London, says: "One of the problems has been that different schools give varying levels of choice to individual teachers in terms of what they can buy. As head of department at this school, I get final say and it's fantastic. Everything the teachers in our department have wanted to buy with our ELCs, we've got - and that's a far cry from the scrabbling around for money I had to do in the early days of my career."

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