TeachIT: Act now for teacher ict learning

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TeachIT: Act now for teacher ICT learning

John Turner

Head of Information Technology, Presbyterian Ladies’ College, Melbourne
The gap between teacher capability and student potential in the digital age is an issue of concern for teachers and students alike. Efforts to date based on professional development of teachers have been disappointing and gaps appear to be widening. If student learning potential for a digital age is to be realised then new ways of supporting teachers to attain the skills necessary to add educational value through computer use need to be pursued. This paper examines one model, teachIT, which provides a teacher learning approach that engage, supports and adds value to classroom use of digital technologies across all teachers. Modules provide engaging pre-tests, supportive materials, examples of subject use, the building of knowledge banks, and the sharing, celebration and recognition of teacher and student work. Consideration in one school is used to highlight the potential of teachIT and issues arising. This paper reports on work undertaken within the Information Technology Department of the school mentioned and does not present or report on the school's current overall approach.

  1. Introduction

For the fast evolving world of digital technologies the industrial-structured school system looks to be increasingly on a different trajectory. The increasing availability of powerful computer systems in Australian homes, and a tendency of school system decision-makers to define value through traditional priorities, has led to increasing divergences between student home experiences, teacher comprehension of educational possibilities, and the values schools and their teachers place on curriculum use of digital technologies.
This paper investigates some of the issues that go with such divergences and shortcomings, and proposes a model of involvement to increase teacher engagement with technologies at the classroom level. The goal is the generation of valued learning for students and teachers: for students, to utilise and build on their motivation to engage with digital technologies (ISQ 2008); for teachers, engagement with information and communication technologies (ICTs) to enhance classroom learning opportunities. The platform underpinning the model, teachIT, makes use of the Internet’s capacity for interaction and publishing to share and build work of educational value within schools.

Research Background

Prensky (2000) highlighted the dilemma of difference between teachers and their students; defining those brought up in the digital world as 'digital natives' compared to older generations, including teachers, as ‘digital immigrants’. Others have not been as strident, pointing to the lack of effective supporting research (Siemens 2007) and identifying a range of student learning preferences and capacities for teacher adaptability at odds with Prensky's claims (VanSlyke 2003). However, what should not be contested is the difficulty that teachers have in making effective educational use of new, ever-emerging technologies. Cuban (2001) points to the inadequate use of computers in schools by teachers, building on his previous (1986) identification of the capacity of school as a system to subsume new technologies to fit its ongoing traditional, conservative, text-driven culture.

Barth (2001) summed up the approach to change management by schools as “a basic pattern of grand pretensions, faulty execution and puny results”. As Snyder (2008) points out, policy-makers fail to comprehend the importance of working with and understanding how teachers work. In the case of ICTs, schools too often appear content to seek promotion through the efforts of individual teachers or in partnership with commercial providers to publicise the next solution. Teacher professional development is an oft-mentioned solution for teachers to be able to make use of computers at the classroom level, but successful system outcomes in schools have been consistently lacking (Hargreaves 1998). Lighthouse schools and teachers have been used to showcase, but with limited effect on whole-system change. Leadership has been wanting, although at times evidence has emerged as to what can be (see Loader 2006). ICT related curriculum change in schools generally, however, has been limited and tending towards the haphazard (Snyder 2008).
Historically there have been two central issues affecting how educators value ICTs. The first is how best to approach using computers in schools. Taylor (1980) summarised the choices as Tool, Tutee or Tutor. As Tool the computer is thought best used as one would pen and paper, another tool with purposeful intent. As Tutee the computer could form a student-centered learning partnership with the student, with the latter ‘teaching’ or programming the computer. As Tutor the computer was thought to have potential as a teacher substitute. Relevant philosophical debates about the preferred nature of school teaching and learning pre-date digital technologies: Dewey (1916) talked about the need for school systems to change to be more project-orientated, student-centered and authentic in purpose. His work is a strong influence on the Tutee view. Jonassen’s (2000) computer as mindtool concept pushes the tutee potential with computers as learning Tools. At this point in time the debates about the best way to use technology to progress educational achievement, and whether technology can be used effectively to improve student learning, remain unresolved (ISQ 2008).
The second issue is school as a system. Its industrial preferences have been long touted as a limiting force. Papert (1980) recognized school’s ability to resist the required changes that computers required for learning. As Cuban (1986) demonstrated, the capacity for school as a self-serving system to submerge new technologies should not be underestimated. Snyder (2008) points to the need for more than provision of technology as a solution for educational shortcomings if schools want to move beyond the relatively minor shifts identified by Cuban (2001).
Priority given to machine decisions over people or learning objectives has been one of the major limiting factors towards teachers keeping up with ICT developments and schools providing educational value (Papert 1985). In more recent times, the competitive, market-driven model applied to schools has seen more emphasis on perceptions of value-added rather than any willingness to embrace the issues needed to professionally attest to what works and what is lacking. The recent initial focus of the Australian Government's Digital Education Revolution policy on provision of computers is a concern in its adherence to such limited considerations. As Barth (2001) puts it, “unless teachers and administrators act to change the culture of a school, 'innovations' will have to fit in and around existing elements of the culture. That is, they will be superficial window dressing incapable of making much difference”.
More consideration is needed into what schools should be required to provide through curriculum use of ICTs. Phelps et al (2001) pointed to the need to develop computer literacy in students through learning to adapt, to be flexible, intuitive, and do learning more than simply a set of technological skills. Meta-learners were defined as those who were aware of their motives, task demands and personal cognitive resources, and who could exert control over strategies used. Teachers were seen as integral to such a process, needing to develop adaptive computer skills and a capacity to engage in self-directed and experiential learning.
Expanding on the aims advocated by Phelps et al (2001) and others such as those reported by Peck and Dorricott (1994), classroom-based teaching and learning with ICTs has the potential to support:

  • Purposeful learning: learning by doing to effectively achieve commonly agreed outcomes.

  • Adaptability: taking on changing technologies and systems in a diverse world.

  • Collaboration: valuing peer learning as well as student prior knowledge and potential.

  • Processing information overload: the efficient use and evaluation of digital sources.

  • Digital experimentation: building on student motivation to experiment and learn.

  • Digital identity: developing a web presence and with it a responsibility.

  • Time management: handling the time demands of ICT use.

  • Reflection: problem-solving and meta-cognition.

  • Digital literacy: programming as an integral curriculum consideration (Prensky 2008)

  • Data communication: developing expertise in submitting and validating digital work.

  • Building of mental models (see Senge et al (2000), National Research Council (2000)): through apprenticeship developing effective use of specialised software.

  • ICT as a subject: forming worthwhile paths for students who wish to become ICT professionals

  • Ethics of computer use: valuing understanding of copyright, plagiarism, threats, inappropriate materials and using ICTs as part of the modern digital society.

Guiding this should be a commitment to using ICT where benefits to student learning have been strongly demonstrated, in terms of “characteristics such as motivation, concentration, cognitive processing, independent learning, critical thinking and teamwork” (ISQ 2008).

School Background

The culture of the school in which curriculum use of computers is undertaken is as important as the intended approach. This paper reports on work conducted, exclusively at this stage, amongst IT Department staff in the secondary section of an academic, girls' independent school located in the eastern suburbs of Melbourne, Australia. The school has been using computers across the curriculum for over twenty years. During this time numerous technologies, including programming languages, applications, multimedia, and the Internet, have been accommodated as they have become available. The school provides the computer technologies as part of its policy of school resource provision (as distinct from 'laptop' schools where students use their own laptop). Currently there is a ratio of about one computer for every three students. Just about every student has home access to a computer and the Internet. The teacher is the primary determiner of when computers are to be used and instigates the booking of the resource. However, there is also open access to students to the computer facilities and links to home through a Virtual Learning Environment. Lankshear and Snyder (2000) found that that the school had an ever-evolving set of curriculum initiatives, and that there was a strong supporting culture and access for teachers when required.

From the start the school’s approach to ICT use was built around:

  • The identification of quality school learning within and across subjects.

  • The teacher as the driver of classroom management and change.

  • Identified valued learning that all should be able to benefit from.

  • The ongoing development of teachers as computer users and classroom managers.

  • Systems able to cope with the adaptability demands of ever-changing technologies.

  • Subject learning at the core, with valued computer skills and subject learning objectives clearly identified.

  • Systems educationally viable and able to be replicated.

  • Systems robust enough to cater for teachers coming and going, through departures from the school or timetable dictates, and

  • Students as digital creators, not consumers, with all middle-school students in managing their own web folio site.

Moore’s Law highlights the ever-changing nature of digital technologies. The school’s approach pre-dates the advent of widespread use of the Internet in schools from the mid-1990s, and the changing balance between school and home use of computers. The school's approach has weathered technology change, teacher change, changes in student learning requirements and changes in external curriculum demands.

Teachers are a core element for successful use. Teaching teams are used to support teachers. ICT teachers work with subject teachers. No teachers are excluded from teams, although various strategies are applied depending on the individual teacher’s needs, aptitude and capabilities. Teachers have been willing to look objectively at new ways of supporting student learning, take risks in a supported environment, and work with other teachers.
Timetabling and staffing changes means that new teams are created regularly. New teams enable sharing of ideas, new ideas and interests to flourish, and a coherent-shared approach to the development of knowledge creation. The availability and sharing of quality materials is a key component.

TeachIT model

Since the mid-1990s student work and teacher tasks have been made available through a school intranet. With the availability of new technologies comes new ways of communicating. The multimedia platform package, Flash was used to establish a multimedia delivery and reporting platform. This platform, teachIT, was created to:

  • bring together the materials (already available) in an easily accessible digital form,

  • to provide pre-tests (using Flash ActionScript) for teacher learning,

  • to publish and share teacher and student work through a Knowledge Bank, and

  • to provide administrative information on support availability and certification.

TeachIT consist of nine sections:

  • Knowledge Test: for self-assessment

  • Skills Material: purpose driven sheet templates on particular software skills

  • Subject Tasks: Examples of subject specific tasks to complement skill sheets

  • Assessment: Assessment rubric templates for subject tasks

  • Mentor Support: Advice on ICT teacher support availability

  • Knowledge Bank: Library of teacher work [subject task, student work examples]

  • Certification: Advice on levels that teachers can attain within the system

  • Skills Map: An overview of skills covered with students across Years 7 – 9

  • Theory: The educational frameworks on which teachIT is based.

Figure 1: teachIT Home Screen

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