Issue 2

Interview: Using technology where there’s an academic value

From art teacher to tech trainer, Diane Nolan talks about her ICT ‘journey’ and shares her thoughts about using technology to make teachers’ lives easier.

If you’re looking to use a little bit more technology in your classroom, Diane Nolan has some advice:
“Engage in your audience,” she said. “Try to find out how you can embrace the ICT of students’ everyday lives and move it into the classroom – a simple example might be the use of a games console within an educational setting.”

She also suggests teachers need to get involved in discussion forums, find out about how other teachers are using tools in their classroom, and engage in “discussions across the staffroom”.

“They may find that teachers in other subject areas are already using tools and embracing technology that may add another level of understanding to their own lesson material. But the pity of it is the staffroom tends to become an area to bitch and drink coffee, rather than a forum to discuss how other people use what is available to them in their classroom.”

Nolan is one of the first to admit she’s something of a rare breed – with degrees in fine art and computer programming. Her career’s included spells as a graphic designer, games developer, art teacher, teacher trainer, university lecturer and government adviser.

“I’ve always embraced both, although when I graduated I never saw any way in which they could be combined together as a career. People thought I was a bizarre creature.”

After initially working in the IT industry, she began training and guest lecturing and soon realised she had an “aptitude for showing people how to use tools in a simple manner”.

“I guess I fell into teaching by a happy accident and studied part-time to get my teaching qualification, so I could formalise what I was doing.

“I went into High School teaching as an art teacher, with some ICT lesson delivery. At that time, all I had was two very old Apple Macs and I would allow the more able students to move away from paper-based resources and start to build collage, photo montage work and develop visual artwork with the use of a scanner and printer.

“I always wanted to be a teacher but not solely an art teacher because I enjoyed technology. However, I didn’t want to be solely an IT computer teacher because at the top end of programming my brain gives out.”

Nolan’s ICT expertise soon brought her to the attention of exam boards, tertiary education, even the UK Government. Perhaps the highlight to date is her role in establishing and co-ordinating the DiDA Project – a UK initiative to provide teachers and students with online ICT training resources (see end panel).

“DiDA happened really from a culmination of all the work I had been doing, some of which had become nationally visible in the UK – such as WIICT (Women in ICT) and CCForG (Computer Courses for Girls) which broadly looked at why women were so underrepresented in the IT industry and how to empower them to exploit technology in their career aspirations.”

Despite Nolan’s obvious like of and involvement with technology, she’s also aware that it doesn’t offer all the answers.

“People should really only use technology where they feel it has an academic value in their classroom rather than just using technology for the sake of it.

“There are a lot of tools and devices available out there but many are not suitable for particular subject areas – although every single subject area can use some tool or device effectively.

“ICT should be seen as an empowering tool – a positive thing that allows teachers to directly embrace the world of their student, engage them and bridge the gap between what they consider to be their real life and their educational life. Unfortunately, in many cases I think one of the problems is that it’s seen as a burden.”

She quickly adds that she doesn’t see this as “anybody’s fault”.

“All subjects can benefit from technology but, certainly from my experience, I think that the problem has been that, rather than using it where it is specifically appropriate, it seems to be indiscriminately plugged into every possible lesson. This has led many teachers to feel, in some ways, marginalised by the tools they are being forced to use.

I think it may be being addressed too aggressively.”

Nolan cites the example of the wide introduction of interactive whiteboards into schools in the UK.

“It hit a lot of non-ICT subject deliverers quite hard,” she explained, “because they suddenly had to go under a rigorous training and development programme and it became a situation where many felt uncomfortable about this large object in the corner of their classroom which they had to somehow use it in their everyday life. I’ve seen it become a rather large and expensive coat hanger.”

In Nolan’s eyes, many teachers have “no real understanding about the world of interesting and student-specific ICT” and appreciating the intricacies of Excel or PowerPoint was “possibly outside the range of their expectation”.

“They see things like playing computer games, listening to MP3 players, and having a mobile phone as being negative in terms of its educational output.

“I suppose they’re feeling uncomfortable about this technology because it impinges on their time, because then they have to engage in training and development. Again, this causes a problem because, from my experience, teachers are quite hard people to teach.”

But there is hope – as well as a need for change and adaptation.

“The reality is that technology will be a part of everyday life in the world of young people from now on. We have to be able to find a way to effectively demonstrate its use within all subject areas, so that they can effectively see its use as a tool.”

The important thing to grasp, according to Nolan, is that ICT isn’t the silver bullet it’s just part of the package.

“It’s a tool similar to the way a pencil is. It’s about finding a way of using it effectively to deliver something that would otherwise be complex. For example, if you were delivering a science lesson where you had to dissect a lung, a video or an animation could be used to explain a concept. Technology can also be used to allow students to relive that experience over and over. It should be used effectively rather than, in the worst case, where we simply go ‘okay, for the rest of the lesson will be used for research please log on to Google’ and the class all groans.”

Ultimately, sometimes the uptake and use of technology comes down to the ‘what’s in it for me’ argument.

“Initially it won’t make teachers’ lives easier,” confessed Nolan. “I think we’d be lying to say that to start to take on technology in all of its many areas is easy. If you’ve never picked up a video camera before or tried to do post production work it will definitely not make your life easier in the short term. But in the middle term and longer term, it will.

“And it will certainly allow for a deeper understanding by students of subject areas, particularly as it lets the less able student use the tools that they are familiar with in their everyday life to further expand their own educational journey.”

DIANE NOLAN WAS TALKING TO INTERFACE EDITOR GREG ADAMS
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DIPLOMA IN DIGITAL APPLICATIONS (DIDA)
DiDA is an online set of resources designed to help support teachers and students in their use of ICT.

“I was invited to assemble a group of people from all over the country to combine expertise and develop a set of e-learning resources,” explained Nolan.

“One of the aims was to help teachers move away from the endless office applications delivery to a new set of non subject specific tools that would embrace Web, games and graphics in a very real, vocational but also academic sense.

“And not just that but how they could allow their students to explore tools such as Flash, Dreamweaver and Fireworks, without having to feel like they have to be the ‘sage on the stage’ – they could be empowered simply by having an overview of how the tools operated.”

Completed in May 2005, DiDA includes videos, PDFs, sample files and step-by-step guides – all of which are freely available at: http://www.dida-delivered.org/delivered/#

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ABOUT DIANE NOLAN
Diane Nolan is International Director, School of Games, Computing, and Creative Technologies, University of Bolton, Singapore. As well as DiDA, she implemented the widely acclaimed programme of Train the Trainer events, has written media training resources for Adobe software, and facilitated a number of projects for creating more engaging and immersive curriculum for 14- to 19-year-olds. She is especially interested in improving the representation of women in science, engineering, and technology.

Her favourite ongoing projects include Women in Computing Technology, which seeks to create interesting ICT curriculum for young women, and Zapp!, a games design summer school. She received the UK National eGovernment Award for Education 2007, honouring her achievements in developing interactive e-learning resources, video, and electronic delivery materials.

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Categories: Issue 2