A brave new world in the classroom

There is no doubt that technology benefits pupils, but competent teaching is essential
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The Independent Online

Way back in the mid-Eighties, Information and Communications Technology (ICT) in schools meant a couple of BBC computers in the science room, with software developed by an enthusiastic teacher. It was new and ad hoc, and it's potential to transform the classroom was still the stuff of futurology.

Nearly 20 years on the picture has changed dramatically, with the Government putting in more than £700m of funding between 1998 and 2002 to create an ICT infrastructure in schools. Computers are now as commonplace as desks, and email and the internet are rapidly becoming as essential for learning as textbooks.

Indeed, putting the C between the I and the T has heralded a whole plethora of peripherals and applications that now make up the repertoire of the average secondary school - broadband internet access, libraries of CD-Rom software, videoconferencing facilities, interactive whiteboards, digital video - to name just a few. Indeed, more than 99 per cent of schools are now connected to the internet, while the average spend on ICT has risen from £3,600 in primary schools and £40,100 in secondary schools in 1998 to £15,400 and £76,300 respectively. More importantly, more than 75 per cent of teachers now say they feel confident using ICT in the curriculum.

Behind this success story is the British Educational Communications and Technology Agency (Becta), the Government's lead body for ICT in education. Created in 1998, it has been working both behind the scenes and directly with teachers to support the development of ICT in education throughout the UK, matching the needs of education with an understanding of the power of technology. Becta helped create both the National Grid for Learning, to encourage the widespread use of ICT in teaching, and the Virtual Teacher Centre to address the needs of teachers.

The agency has also been at the forefront of proving that all this investment has been money well spent, commissioning research to look at the effect of ICT on pupil attainment. The study - the ImpaCT2 report - gave the funding the thumbs-up, as pupils using ICT were more often found to achieve higher-than-predicted GCSE results. "There is now clear evidence that that ICT can be of real benefit," says Malcolm Hunt, Becta's head of evidence and research. "When used well and employed effectively, it has a significant impact on pupils' performance."

His view was echoed earlier this year by Charles Clarke, Secretary of State for Education and Skills. Essentially, ICT empowers learners to become effective and independent, he declared at Bett, the annual showcase for educational ICT. It boosts self-esteem through better presentation of work and higher attainment levels, as well as giving pupils greater control over their work, bringing about greater motivation and sustained concentration, and helping develop thinking skills. "Most importantly, ICT has fundamentally changed the nature of relationships between pupil and teacher and therefore of teaching and learning styles as well," says Clarke. "Mutual respect has been built up: people's confidence has been taken forward."

Indeed, the ways schools use ICT today are as creative as they are varied. Digital video, for instance, has benefited disabled children at Mere Oaks school in Wigan, one of the 50 original pilot schools in Becta's digital video project. Many pupils can't perform live on stage, but the technology allows repeat performances and editing, explains expressive arts coordinator Robert Overton. "They can create plays and documentaries and use special effects and animation," he says. "It's a very creative medium and enables as many kids as possible to engage in the arts."

Interactive whiteboards, touch-sensitive screens which enable teachers to control a computer, are also transforming classroom practice. This technology has resulted in enormous improvements on the old chalk and blackboard option, enhancing presentations by easily integrating video, animation, graphics, text and audio. At Dixon City Technology College, for example, the use of the whiteboard in science allows the teacher to include links to a computer model of an electromagnetic wave, an animated view of an endoscope travelling through the human body, and X-ray topography pictures of dramatic injuries.

While email and instant messaging allow pupils all over the world to contact each other, their experiences in writing and videoconferencing carries this a step further. Links such as the one between the Montgomery Combined School in Exeter and the École St Claire in Brittany give pupils an opportunity to practise their language skills while actually seeing and forming a relationship with one another via a real-time video meeting.

But Becta, the Government and the schools involved cannot afford to rest on their laurels, says Hunt. "Just getting the infrastructure and equipment in place doesn't alone mean it will be used in the classroom. You can have a school that is absolutely dripping in technology, but unless it's used appropriately you won't see the benefits coming through."

Developing the confidence and competence of teachers is the lynchpin, Hunt believes. "We've got to encourage, support and train all teachers to mould it into the delivery of their lessons and their curriculum objectives. That's very much the challenge we're facing now - how to make that ICT powerful, efficient and effective."

ICT SCHOOL PROJECTS

* Piloted across 50 schools, Becta's Internet Proficiency Scheme is aimed at Key Stage 2 pupils and aims to develop "safe and discriminating behaviours" for internet use. In it, pupils learn how to evaluate websites, respond appropriately to emails and chat conversations, when it is safe to give out personal information online and the differences between the "virtual" and "real" worlds. The scheme consists of a teacher's pack and an interactive website.

* New2Computers is Becta's new website designed to help "newbies" get the most out of their PC and apply ICT to the curriculum. Teachers and other staff receive a tip of the day, and read up on frequently asked questions or join Newts, an online self-help group aimed at those in the earliest stages of gaining ICT skills and confidence. There are also various chatrooms in which to compare notes, and a range of tutorials written to national IT training standards.

* Becta's Creativity Awards for Digital Video is a new awards scheme for pupils across the UK, aiming to celebrate excellence in creative use of the digital video medium, and to inspire pupils and teachers to exploit the full potential of this exciting technology. The winning entries will be showcased nationally by 4Learning (the educational arm of Channel 4), with schools receiving a Digital Video Learning Kit comprising an iMac, iMovie2 and a Canon digital camcorder provided by sponsors, Apple and Canon.

* The ICT Advice website provides a one-stop shop for all ICT education needs and caters for a wide range of experience and skill levels. The teaching and learning section has plenty for those looking for ideas and resources to help integrate ICT more effectively into lessons, while the admin and policies section helps with management. The technology section contains clear descriptions of many different technologies, together with advice on choosing the most appropriate solutions. The Ask an Expert area mops up any unanswered questions with the opportunity to put queries to experts selected from Becta and the wider educational sector.

You can access all of these and gain information on other Becta projects and research through the website: www.becta.org.uk

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