By Bob Harrison
The vice-chancellor of the Open University, Martin Bean (a highly regarded former Microsoft executive), recently warned of the growing “crisis of relevance” in schools and colleges. He was alluding to the gap between young people’s immersion in digital technologies in their personal and social spaces and their experience in most classrooms and lecture halls across the country.
To bridge this gap and develop teachers’ digital technology skills to get full value from the massive investment in ICT for schools and colleges, the Government has put more than £5.6 million into an OU-led innovative approach. And visitors to the BETT 2010 event in London's Olympia next week will get a first glimpse of what the OU is planning.
Called Vital (Transforming Lessons, Inspiring Learning), this new partnership between the OU and e-skills UK was first announced in July last year and welcomed by the OU’s project director, Peter Twining as “an incredibly exciting opportunity to work with the education community to help move our use of ICT in schools and colleges into the 21st Century”.
Since then the OU and e-Skills have been setting out their ambitions for Vital and how it will respond to the needs of two types of practitioners – those seeking to exploit ICT across the curriculum and the specialist ICT, IT and computing teachers. This will come as welcome news for those who feel that in the haste to spread ICT across the curriculum – the corect course – insufficient attention was paid to making ICT itself, or computer studies, a vital, appealing subject, which it certainly should be.
The focus on mundane aspects of computer applications rather than the creative, challenging aspects of programming and the technology, which have given rise to the Web 2.0 developments which have proved so powerful and popular, can not have helped popularity of the subject which would ultimately support the workforce needs of the ICT industry. Vital should be able to have an influence in this area.
Open to all staff in schools and sixth form colleges across England, Vital will be offering six new face-to-face and at least three online courses. A network of nine regional co-ordinators will work with local training providers, schools, local authorities and employers to ensure provision is appropriate and tailored to each region's needs.
“Vital is concerned with raising the competence of teachers in our schools and sixth form colleges and we are not just concerned with courses,” says Peter Twining. “Our experience and research tells us that teachers develop themselves in a variety of formal and informal ways. We first need to establish what is going on, what works and where the gaps are. We can then support appropriate interventions if necessary.”
'In many schools the benefits realised from ICT are limited'
The key objective of Vital, according to Peter Twining, is to bring about a “step change” in the professional development opportunities available to the education workforce. And speaking at the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust annual conference, education minister Ed Balls suggested it was time to reflect on whether we are making the most of the opportunities.
“In many schools the benefits realised from ICT are limited," he warned. "Becta’s Harnessing Technology survey shows that only a quarter of all schools are using ICT effectively across all their business functions.” Or, as succinctly put by teacher, innovator and ‘digital toolmaker’ John Davitt: “History will say, ‘you had those tools and you did WHAT with them?’”
However, the pace of technological change is rapid and this year’s innovative use of technology is in next year’s "refresh" budget, so how do teachers keep up with the constant need for updating?
Debbie Forster (pictured above), a former headteacher and now e-skills UK’s Vital programme co-ordinator thinks it is critical to work closely with the technology industry. “Through e-skills UK’s network of employers and industry, Vital has access to a unique combination of knowledge and skills which should help teachers’ development in the use of digital technologies," she says. "By developing the skills and confidence of teachers, we hope to improve the experience students have of technology in education – in turn attracting more young people into taking technology-related courses at school and beyond.
"We recognise that keeping abreast of the latest developments in technology is a continual challenge. As well as supporting teachers of all subjects, a core component of Vital will be opportunities for specialist teachers to work with employers and to sample industry-level cutting edge content and facilities."
'Unconscious incompetence to conscious competence?'
There is an interesting and growing issue here, in which evidence from publications and research reports raises challenging questions for ICT capital investment in programmes like BSF and PCP and accompanying change management and workforce development strategies in schools and sixth form colleges. No one doubts the need to bring schools and colleges into the 21st century – and keep them up to date – but there is a big question mark over recent progress measured against investment.
Recent Becta/NFER research tells us that: “The majority of teachers are enthusiastic and positive about using ICT.” But in a recent British Education Suppliers Association (BESA) analysis of the online responses from 770 primary and 572 secondary schools across the UK suggests that teacher confidence and competence has dipped by almost 10 per cent in primary and secondary schools.
Another alarming finding from the BESA analysis, and perhaps immediate justification for the DCSF £5.6m investment in the Vital project, is that the percentage of teachers receiving ICT training in 2009 was down by 10 per cent in primary and a worrying 20 per cent in secondary schools. In addition more than 80 per cent of teachers say they have limited access to ICT in their classroom.
Microsoft's UK marketing manager Ray Fleming, an industry figure with long experience of ICT for learning, argues on his blog that we need to be careful before jumping to conclusions from the BESA study. In his opinion the data is reflecting the journey through the learning curve: “We all start any learning journey in the 'unconsciously incompetent' box (we don’t know what we can’t do) and normally progress through to being 'consciously incompetent' (we find out what we can't do), before continuing through to 'consciously competent' (a feeling of relief from knowing that we can do it!).”
'We are listening to teachers when they tell us what makes effective CPD'
So will this bold and innovative approach to the development of teachers’ confidence and competence in the use of digital technologies to enhance teaching and learning work when it is questionable whether teachers’ last experience of a “national intervention”, the NOF (New Opportunities Fund) training programme, was as effective as it could have been? With a few exceptions NOF training was largely awkward, cumbersome and ineffective, particularly as it was supposed to be done in teachers' own time.
“This is where Vital is a fundamentally different approach to the issue” says Peter Twining. “We are listening to teachers when they tell us what makes effective CPD, reviewing all the available research and resources and using the combined expertise of the Open University, e-skills UK and, of course, the latest digital technologies and Web 2.0 tools to support teachers.”
Bob Harrison is an education consultant who works with the National College for Leadership of Schools and Children's Services, the British Educational Communications and Technology Agency (and a contributor to its Future website) and Toshiba UK. You can read his blog on the Futurelab Flux website. He runs Support for Education and Training.