Rise of the e-classroom

The electronic revolution is gaining momentum. Can teachers keep up?

Computers are a growing part of everyday life, so naturally they are increasingly used in schools. Beyond that less-than-earth-shattering statement, however, lies a complicated and fluid picture, with vast differences in provision across the schools landscape, and a continuing debate about how best they should be used.

Some state schools, for example, have access to as many as 1,000 laptops, while others still conduct some lessons on blackboards. Some teachers have gone totally electronic, while others cling to their belief in "chalk and talk".

Initially, computers arrived as a tool of school administration and that process continues to advance. A recent innovation in this field involves some schools in carrying out e-registration, where teachers call the register not with a pencil in their hand, but with their finger on a mouse. The electronic records of who's in and who's not are then downloaded to a central database.

A second reason for computers in schools is to enable teachers to do their preparation, worksheet design, record keeping, and report-writing electronically, rather than with old-style pen and paper. All teachers now have access to such computers, but the degree to which these are used for the tasks depends on individuals.

But the main, and most important, reason for information and communications technology (ICT) in schools, of course, is to drive the learning process. For Paul Hynes, a former secondary school teacher, and now subject leader for ICT at the Specialist Schools Trust, the importance of ICT in the classroom is a no-brainer.

"All teenagers now have a certain level of technical skill - just look at how fast they send text messages or grasp new pieces of software. We have to take advantage of these skills to help them learn rather than repress them," he says.

Now that most schools have achieved, or are near to achieving, the nationwide target for this year of having one PC for every eight pupils in primary schools, and one in five in secondaries, the focus is shifting towards how the equipment is used for learning.

This aim can be broken down into two categories: computers used by the pupils working on their own or in pairs, and equipment used by teachers at the front of the classroom, such as electronic whiteboards or projection screens. The two functions meet when, using an interactive whiteboard, students come to the front of the class and complete a task by touching the screen, with the teacher and the rest of the class looking on.

Hynes is in no doubt of the power of ICT to aid learning. "The best classroom uses I have seen are where new concepts are explained. For example, in maths, rotation and translation of shapes used to be taught using pieces of tracing paper. Now when you see this demonstrated on a PC or using an interactive whiteboard, you see the light of understanding in kids' eyes flicker straight away."

And something as simple as bringing up a news-based website on a projector at the front of a classroom to illustrate an earthquake that's just taken place, can also transform the start of a geography lesson.

A study in 15 schools last year by researchers at Lancaster University confirmed the positive impact ICT can have on pupils' learning. Increased confidence and improved motivation were among the benefits reported.

The educational uses to which ICT is harnessed in schools are immensely varied. A secondary school, for example, may have 200-300 pieces of subject-related software held on the network.

Among the latest technology acquired by some schools are so-called voting panels, where each pupil responds to a question from the teacher with a multiple-choice answer. The results, Ask The Audience-style, are displayed on a screen, giving the teacher immediate feedback on understanding within the class.

Another innovation creeping into some schools are tablet PCs: screens carried around the room by a teacher. Anything the teacher or a student writes on the screen is simultaneously displayed on the board at the front for all to see.

This all costs money, of course. Schools will never have enough to do everything they want to in IT, but the Government continues to increase spending on schools generally and ring-fence certain amounts for spending on computers.

A longer-term aim is for every pupil in the country to have access to his or her own PC or laptop out of school hours, by 2006. Championing this campaign is the e-Learning Foundation, a charity chaired by the former Education Secretary Estelle Morris. The estimated cost of this is about £2.5bn.

The chief executive of the e-learning foundation, Valerie Thompson, emphasises the importance of this campaign given what's called the digital divide between well-off and under-privileged areas of the country. "We have some schools where 90 per cent of pupils do not have access to any sort of computer at home. They are missing out enormously on many of the educational advantages enjoyed by better-off kids," she says.

So the electronic revolution in education is gaining momentum, but some teachers voice important qualifications. Many argue that ICT is not always the answer. One experienced infants teacher in London recently complained that her school had spent £3,000 on a new projector for her room when what she really needed for her class was another set of reading books.

The snazziest of new kit is only of use if teachers are given the time and training to learn how to use it. There are countless interactive whiteboards stuck to walls up and down the country that are left idle because of this factor.

And many think the effectiveness of ICT should be measured on what students are capable of producing for themselves as a result of exposure to computers, not how fast they are with a mouse in their hand. Computerisation is a means, not an end in itself.

The essential learning disciplines of concentration, reading and writing, analysis and communication are as valid as they were long before the word "computer" first appeared in a dictionary.