Introducing pupils – and teachers – to IT

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1 April 2005 | 0

DID YOU KNOW that since the launch of Schools IT 2000 in November 1997, over €100 million has been spent on ICT provision for primary and secondary schools in Ireland? There are now over 60,000 computers in Irish schools; the average number of computers in Irish primary schools has risen to nearly ten. Networks have become more common too, as have ISDN lines, not to mention laptops, data projectors and digital cameras.

More than 75 per cent of teachers have attended at least one ICT course, in their own time, many of whom now own their own computer at home. Indeed, many schools have large sums of money on account, to be spent on computer equipment in the current school year to further enhance their provision of ICT-related activities to their pupils.

Allowing for the fact that the statistics fail to tell us just how many of these 60,000 computers are turned on every day and how well they are used for curricular purposes, it should be clear that our children now have far more opportunities to use computers in school than ever before. If, on the other hand, your child never gets to use a computer at school to enhance their learning, it might be worth asking why. Maybe your child’s school has a leaky roof, inadequate central heating and mice that do more than point and click, but many of the reasons that have been put forward in the past regarding why the children don’t use computers have been eradicated.

 

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Past mistakes

You won’t find too many prepared to admit it, but mistakes have been made with regard to ICT spending in the past, and as schools plan how best to proceed, it is worthwhile to consider what our priorities should be. In recent years, far too many schools have invested considerable sums of money on shiny new computers before assessing how they can be used most effectively.

For instance, at the outset of Schools IT 2000, every school in the country was given a fully-featured Pentium-based Internet-ready PC, but the only software included was Microsoft Office. A wonderful application, no doubt, but not terribly useful for junior or senior infants, or for pupils struggling with reading or maths.

Similarly, we have come across several schools that have spent their entire budget on computers, but left no money available to buy educational software, or even an inkjet printer for pupils to print out their work.

We suggest that at least 20 per cent of a school’s budget should be allocated to the provision of a wide range of high quality educational software, both content-rich and content-free, appropriate to the needs and abilities of the pupils. There is a huge range of excellent educational software available, for all ages and abilities, including special needs, as a browse through previous editions of this magazine will testify.

Mistakes like this are far less likely to happen if schools have a plan—and a plan will be far more effective if it springs from a policy. Fundamental to any ICT policy is a statement that outlines what the computers are for. And there is no better place to start than the curriculum.

Computers can have a far-reaching effect on curriculum implementation if pupils are using the right software, for the right reasons, and at the right stage of their development. Whether it’s at a basic level of revising spellings, tables or mathematical concepts, or at the more advanced stages of word processing, DTP or multimedia authoring, the use of computers has an extremely powerful effect of the quality of children’s learning, and it’s on this basis alone, we suggest, that all purchasing decisions are made.

ICT advisors

One of the most effective developments since the advent of Schools IT 2000 has been the appointment of ICT advisors (seconded from teaching positions) in every full-time Education Centre around the country. Although most—if not all—of the advisors will readily admit that far too much of their time is taken up with administrative functions (as distinct from visiting schools), this group is a wonderful resource for all schools, one which is always happy and willing to help and advise schools on all matters relating to ICT. The ICT advisors are dedicated to the development of computer usage in Irish schools, and can bring a wealth of experience and expertise to any school that needs it.

It is important to remember however that technical support is outside the realm of the ICT advisors—there are no technical support personnel supporting ICT in schools—and when purchasing computers, it is highly advisable to pay careful attention to the levels of support offered by hardware companies. Teachers (with a few notable exceptions) are not computer technicians, never mind network specialists, and neither should they be expected to be. Provision should be made, on a yearly basis, for calling in professional help if required.

An additional concern for schools, albeit one that will not worry too many home users, is the fact that most educational software must be licensed properly. Basically there are three types of software licences where schools are concerned, and schools are advised to take great care at the purchasing stage to ensure that they are not in breach of the law.

A single licence allows the software to be loaded onto one computer only, a multiple user licence allows software to be installed onto a specified number of machines (for example, five, ten or 20), and a site licence allows unlimited use of a software program throughout the school. As the numbers of both stand-alone and networked computers in schools continue to increase, this is an issue of great importance, and should be taken into account when budgets are being drawn up.

One possibility for schools that have already managed to acquire a reasonable selection of software is the purchase of CD-Serve technology. This system facilitates the sharing of CD ROM-based applications across a network. It is relatively easy to configure, and eliminates the need for multiple CD-ROMs around a school, and all of the associated management problems. Prices vary according to the storage capacity, but these tidy units are growing in popularity, and it would be well worthwhile checking out a school that already has one in use.

Simple plans

It is very useful, we suggest, in relation to software provision, for schools to draw up a simple plan of work, from year to year, detailing what software is available for use, and in what class it should be used. This has the obvious advantage of ensuring that pupils have opportunities to gain from all that is available in a structured way, and avoiding overlap.

This software, if at all possible, should encompass a range of applications, such as drill and practice, adventure games, reference applications, word processing and authoring/presentation for each year group, as appropriate, and should be closely aligned, for maximum effect, with the relevant curriculum content, across all subject areas.

Branching out

Once the fundamentals are in place—sufficient numbers of computers, software titles, and a teaching staff willing to use them—it won’t be long before schools will want to expand their use of ICT in more creative and experimental ways. Obviously, schools should always seek to expand the range and capabilities of their software range, but there are a few peripherals that can enhance this process effectively.

Top of the list has to be at least one digital camera. We have no hesitation in stating that every school should have one and use it constantly, as it’s a sure-fire way of engaging children in writing and other creative tasks that are meaningful and hugely motivational to them.

As with most technology products, specification levels can be enormously confusing and for those not in the know, advice should be sought from your local ICT advisor or perhaps an ICT co-ordinator, or enthusiast from another school. Bear in mind that the main deciding factor for price is usually the resolution, i.e. the number of pixels (dots) the camera can record for an image. Similarly, features like a zoom lens and video capture facility will increase the cost.

Consideration should also be given, prior to purchase, to how the images will be stored and loaded onto computers. Our experience is that it is worth sacrificing a little on image quality for sturdiness and ease of use, so that the maximum number of people feels confident about using it. Above all though, a digital camera is an infinitely useful tool for engaging pupils in every possible subject, from creative writing, to local history, geography and even language learning—for all ages and ability levels.

Staff development

It goes without saying that all the hardware and software in the world will be useless unless teachers are willing to use it. If staff development is an issue, it is well worthwhile to think about buying a laptop computer. This will allow teachers to learn new skills and evaluate software in their own time and at their own pace; some might even be encouraged to carry out some of their administrative tasks with it. Also, the flexibility and portable nature of a laptop means it can be moved easily around the school to facilitate computer work with specific pupils or groups of pupils in various locations.

A further possibility for schools that have a laptop is a digital projector. Although such a unit will probably cost the equivalent of two laptops, or three desktop machines, they have many possible uses in an educational environment, and are a highly effective means of instruction, presentation or demonstration in a whole class (or even whole school context).

NCTE have produced a resource for schools, entitled ICT Planning and Advice for Schools. This is a useful source of practical guidance for teachers who are considering how best to spend their ICT budget. Our advice is to read it carefully, consult your ICT advisor and visit a progressive local school before making your decisions. But, above all, start with the question: What is this technology for — and how will it benefit our pupils?

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