Information and communications technol­o­gies (ICT) are fast becoming an indispen­sable tool for teaching and learning (T&L). But some individual teachers, and in some cases whole schools, are still lagging behind in cap­i­talising on the many benefits ICT can bring to T&L. The reasons are many and varied – but whether it be for fear of new tech­nology, lack of resources, miscon­ceived ideas about usefulness, or even in some cases apathy about embracing change, the people who are losing out the most are the technology-shy themselves, and as a result the students in their class­rooms are not being given optimum opportunities to achieve.

So what action can curriculum man­agers take to change this situation? Some recent research from Becta – the ICT agency that is among the quangos the Government has said it is going to close – offers some potential solutions.

Impact of digi-teachers
One of these reports, Harnessing technology strategy: celebrating outstanding teachers (Becta, 2009), looked closely at outstanding teachers who make good use of ICT to identify common characteristics. The researchers named these enthusiastic and effective users of ICT ‘digi-teachers’, and found that such staff make more of a difference than the number of computers the school owns.

So who are these ICT experts? Contrary to popular belief they are not necessarily ICT teachers – in fact, more than eight out of 10 did not have ICT as their main subject.

These expert teachers believe that technology can improve how they present their teaching material and can help them better collaborate, communicate and share resources with colleagues. Such teachers are also more likely to use ICT to arrive at creative solutions in their T&L.

They are not interested in the ‘whizzbang’ factor of ICT and just see technology as another string to the bow of their expert domain of teaching, say the researchers. They also believe it is up to them to enter the students’ technological world, rather than expect the students to enter theirs.

They work in schools that use technology in a variety of ways to improve T&L.

It is sometimes surprising to think how far ICT use in schools has come in just the last decade. This month’s Case in Point takes a look at some of the key ICT development issues (here). We then hear from researchers who believe Becta has put too much store by ICT as a tool to achieve personalisation of learning, before the case study school shares how it has gone about developing a Learning Gateway that has engaged staff and parents as well as the students themselves
Making use of ICT to improve teaching and learning

  • Using information systems to monitor and analyse learner achievement and progress
  • Using systems for managing and monitoring attendance and behaviour (lesson registration, parental alerting)
  • Making greater use of technology to engage underachieving pupils, especially creative and applied learning using technology
  • Supporting learner voice through online polls and forums
  • Using computer tools to decontextualise learning, and express and make visible key relationships and structures within the subject matter

(Becta, 2009)

Such teachers also know how to make use of ICT to personalise learning.

Role of ICT in personalising learning

  • Improves planning of T&L
  • Makes learning more dynamic
  • Allows education and learning professionals to engage more effectively with learners
  • Gives access to wider and more tail­ored learning experiences and resources
  • Enables learners to exercise more control over their own learning
  • Increases opportunities for assessment that supports learning
  • Allows teaching staff to share expertise and resources within and beyond school

(Becta, 2009)

Use of new technologies

One of the key technologies that expert teachers are making good use of is the interactive whiteboard (IWB), which brings many benefits – see below for examples.

Benefits of electronic whiteboard to T&L

  • Increases teaching time by allowing teachers to present their materials more efficiently
  • Increases spontaneity and flexibility within the lesson as teachers can draw on a wider range of resources immediately
  • Reduces workloads by allowing teachers to share and reuse materials
  • Inspires teachers to change their pedagogy and make greater use of ICT in the classroom
  • Gives greater opportunities for pupils to participate and collaborate in learning
  • Reduces the need for notetaking
  • Accommodates different learning styles
  • Improves pupils’ personal and social skills
  • Makes it easier to model abstract ideas
  • Increases pace of teaching by allowing teachers to move between texts and revisit materials used earlier
  • Increases pupil self-confidence as they become more creative in their presentations to the class
  • Increases enjoyment of lessons for both teachers and students, raising motivation

(Becta, 2009)

They use it as a generic platform to combine different media such as video, software, the internet and so on. But the IWB cannot be successful in itself: it requires teachers to have the ability to develop a new approach to teaching and learning to make use of its interactivity. Other technologies that expert teachers are making good use of are listed below.

Examples of most used technologies

  • Cameras
  • Video cameras
  • Scanners
  • Laptops
  • Computers
  • Projectors
  • Internet
  • Intranet
  • Virtual learning environment (VLE)
  • Emails
  • YouTube
  • Blogs
  • Forums
  • Instant messaging
  • Wikis
  • Online discussion groups
  • Podcasts

These teachers are also the first to explore the school’s virtual learning environment (VLE), using the forums, posting materials on it, sharing resources, creating coursework with a countdown clock and a podcast with instructions and so on. While extensive use of Web 2.0 technologies and social software is still rare, expert teachers are using these for such tasks as setting up Facebook groups related to a course, or using discus­sion forums for students to share questions with the teacher monitoring the whole process and getting involved only when needed.

These teachers recognise the power of ICT as a motivational tool and capitalise on its potential to improve classroom behaviour. They integrate ICT use in every lesson for a considerable chunk of the time, seeing it as an invaluable tool in presenting the T&L in an attractive and engaging way. They make use of having instant access to a wealth of resources via the internet to provide an immediate response to a pupil’s question by finding supporting material instantly. They also like the capability to be immediately able to refer to learning from a previous lesson without having to rely on it not having been wiped off the board.

Development for the future
Many teachers would benefit from teaching assistants (TAs) who are fully conversant in ICT, so in many cases, TAs should be given more ICT training to fulfil this key role, say the researchers.

As teachers begin to see for them­selves what technology can do, it moves from being a support in their T&L, through to a tool to extend it and finally to being a means of transforming their pedagogy, says the report.

Impact on personalisation
Becta also explored the difference digital technologies have made to T&L via its Understanding the impact of technology: learner and school-level factors research (Becta, 2010a). It looked in particular at what it called a school’s level of ‘e-maturity’: how ready it is to deal with e-learning and the degree to which this is embedded in the curriculum. The researchers found this was strongly related to the degree to which pupils perceived their learning experiences to be personalised. They acknowl­edged that personalisation of learning is a contentious concept. But they found that offering learners too much choice often had a detrimental effect on standards, as learners prefer to have a clear framework for their learning. Teachers taking part in the research generally thought that ICT helped in personalising learning. As one teacher put it:

At the most basic level it allows the students to differentiate work themselves to their own level, but when used correctly it allows students to discover their own learning preferences and enter a personalised world of education.

Interestingly, the students themselves reported a decline in personalised learning in Years 8, 9 and 10 when their level of engagement with learning also suffered.

Role of learning platforms
Again, IWBs were seen as a central ICT tool in T&L, and were viewed as an easy-entry technology, but were not seen as being capable of transforming practice. Use of learning platforms (LPs) was less common, and they were considered to be more problematic innovations. But when embedded in the school, the LP not only supported the existing T&L practice but also stimulated new ways of working.

The researchers acknowledged that learning platforms are still in their infancy, but the benefits they can bring makes them worth the investment. From the practice witnessed in the schools in their study, the researchers identified key characteristics of a functional LP – see below.

Key characteristics of a functional learning platformA functional learning platform is:

  • one that works with and not against current teaching and learning practice
  • easy to negotiate, reliable and intuitive – if the LP is user friendly and provides the support needed, it is more likely to be used by staff
  • one that involves early identification of a fit-for-purpose system – trialling with pupils and staff an LP that is unfit for purpose can cause a level of disillusionment that is difficult to recover from, so for staff and pupil buy-in it is important to identify a usable platform before trialling it on them
  • one that involves a three- or four-year programme of implementation – acknowl­edge that it will take several years to embed the LP into whole-school practice
  •  one that requires effective staff training to ensure that it is put to good use
  • one that schedules time to develop LP materials to avoid excessive workload
  • learner-centred – a common complaint of rejected LPs was that they were teacher-oriented, whereas successful LPs allowed learners to set their own targets and workloads and organise their own learning
  • interactive – teachers and learners should be able to upload, mark and provide feedback online, take part in discussion forums, email and use social networking facilities
  • flexible – teachers should be able to build a resource base tailored to their teaching objectives
  • embedded – where the LP was used school-wide, teachers and learners were increasingly positive about it
  • supported – one school trained ex-learners as e-moderators to provide LP support to learners outside school hours, leading to the LP becoming a major resource in the school
  • maintained – a reliable system is essential to encourage effective learning
  • accessed remotely – giving families the opportunity to become more involved in their child’s learning.

(Becta, 2010a)

The box below identifies some of the benefits an effective LP can bring to teaching and learning.

Benefits of a LP: practice it can enable in the classroom

  • Share best practice and showcase achievements
  • Broadcast through multimedia
  • Share information, canvass opinion, allow collaborative working and involve parents and the community
  • Improve communication between school staff, governors, students, parents, the local community and global links
  • Let students have their say
  • Manage planning and resources, and improve evaluation and assessment through taking into account feedback and contribution from learners
  • Provide access to a range of learning activities and areas to personalise and extend learning opportunities
  • Support learners’ progression and development by making information and data securely available any time, anywhere
  • Enhance reporting practice and give more opportunities to communicate with parents
  • Organise information and provide access to a range of resources/tools for groups of staff, students and parents
  • Provide examples of how the LP can promote effective working practices

(Becta, 2010b)

Becta also developed a model for adopting a learning platform – the box below summarises the five stages.

Adopting a learning platform: stages of development
Step 1: Aware – where senior leadership begins to plan how to use the learning platform to support the school’s objectives, some staff and small groups of pupils are shown what it can do
Step 2: Develop – the school is planning to develop a learning platform based on its needs, with classroom activities using the LP beginning to emerge
Step 3: Adopt – Practice identified as effective is now extended to all areas, and evidence is emerging of it improving T&L
Step 4: Integrate – the learning platform is used as a matter of course, with pupils routinely accessing resources and com­ple­ting tasks through the learning platform
Step 5: Transform – the possibilities of the learning platforms are being fully exploited, and its use continues to develop in response to the needs of the learner, supporting personalised and more independent learning
(Becta, 2010b)

Learning plat­forms: steps to adoption – a step-by-step guide for schools
(Becta, 2010b) details what each step involves and identifies what action schools should be working towards at each stage.

Developed well, the learning platform has the power to transform learning, says the document. Such transformational learning is essential for the 21st century. In fully functional LP class­rooms, learners will be able to experiment and model in a virtual environment as a form of problem-solving, adopt online identities for improvisation and discovery, interpret and simulate real situations, use tools that extend experience, follow the flow and sequence of information across different types of media and work with people from a range of communities, respecting their different perspectives and understanding alternative points of view – a vision for the future of learning that all schools should be aspiring to.

Access Harnessing technology strategy: celebrating outstanding teachers by Andrew Goodwyn, Aristidis Protopsaltis, and Carol Fuller (Becta, 2009), Understanding the impact of technology: learner and school-level factors by Jean Underwood, Thomas Baguley, Phil Banyard, Gayle Dillon, Lee Farrington-Flint, Mary Hayes, Gabrielle Le Geyt, Jamie Murphy and Ian Selwood, Notting­ham Trent University and Univer­sity of Birmingham (Becta, 2010a), and Learning platforms: steps to adoption – a step-by-step guide for schools (Becta, 2010b) via:

As CMU went to press, it was still unclear whether Becta’s education resources would continue to be made available by the Department for Education, and what, if any ICT education service, would be provided as a replacement when it closes in November.