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Six ways to make sure you don’t suck at technology

Do your computer skills put you bottom of the class? Looking to learn more about technology, so you can improve your understanding of ICT? Greg Adams investigates some of your options.

In his former life, Marcel Ollman was a teacher. He remembers how his school had an interactive whiteboard but when the staff member who knew how to use it left, it was put away and forgotten. “It was a disaster, a simple lack of training,” said Ollman, who now works for Waterman Innovations, distributor of interactive whiteboard mimio. “That’s exactly why we refuse to sell just one – it’s asking for trouble.”

For most teachers, information and communications technology (ICT) is something that doesn’t come naturally. They’re what are called ‘digital immigrants’, people who grew up without digital technology, such as computers, the Internet and mobile phones, and adopted it later. Using this technology in the classroom is a skill that needs to be learned … and accepted as part of everyday teaching practice. Some take to it like a fish to water; some like a fish to a bicycle. The majority are somewhere in-between, searching for ways to improve their knowledge and understanding.
In recent years, Natcoll’s Val Gyde has seen a gradual evolution away from learning basic Microsoft software (Word, Excel, Publisher) to a demand for more complex digital media like Photoshop, Indesign, Dreamweaver and Flash.
“Schools are committing funds to help teachers stay on the ‘cuttingedge’ of digital media, so they can assist their students with relevant skills for the constantly-evolving digital design industries,” she said.

For those genuinely interested in learning more, there are two drivers, according to Otago Polytechnic’s Leigh Blacknall.

“There are those who want to use formally-endorsed systems – LMS, SMS, etc. – and those who want more holistic stuff, social networking, blogs, wikis, and how to incorporate them into their teaching. Unfortunately, however, I’d say the majority of teachers have still not made the connection that ICT is important to their teaching practice.”

Sylvia Singh agrees. “The concept is still very new to most teachers,” said the e-learning adviser for Team Solutions (www.teamsolutions.ac.nz), which provides PD in Auckland and Northland schools.

“Many are still focused on developing skills and not on effective ICT pedagogies, which depends on high levels of interactivity amongst and between students and teachers. They’re more inclined to focus on completing their syllabus and assessments; integrating new ways of teaching and learning take a back seat.”

And it’s here that problems arise, believes the Open Polytechnic’s Gerry McCullough.

“Not only is it a matter of keeping up with the technology – just so they know where kids are at – but also being able to embed ICT within teaching, as opposed to it being a subject in its own right. From my own experience, I know it’s difficult to find PD that’s always applicable – it’s very much an individual path. My advice is to use anything and everything as part of the journey.”

Teachers aren’t alone in their struggles, says Leigh Blacknall, and their experience reflects the wider situation across New Zealand.

“It does take time,” said the programme developer from Otago Polytechnic’s Educational Development Centre (www.otagopolytechnic.ac.nz). “Like everyone, Teachers need greater access, more incentives, minimal costs, tolerance, encouragement and support. When principals ask them to take a certain approach but don’t themselves understand what they’re asking, then that comes through as a bit disingenuous. But if you have a boss role-modelling the use the technology, it’s more of an authentic message coming down from management.”

Whatever the challenges, however, a gap in the system is that teachers don’t always know where to find PD to meet their needs. So, we’ve identified six ways to find such opportunities.

1. Ministry of Education initiatives

A prime example is the ICT PD cluster programme (see page 18), whose success is well documented. There’s also the e-Learning Advisory Service, which provides regionally-based support through School Support Services at Colleges of Education across the country.

“We can help with virtually anything,” said Jan Coleman, e-learning adviser at the University of Victoria (www.victoria.ac.nz/education/), “infrastructure, systems management, staff training on how to include e-learning in the curriculum. We tend to demonstrate more of the broader concept. You just need to know what technology can do; leave the kids to figure out how to do it.”

Other initiatives include: Te Kete Ipurangi (www.tki.org.nz); e-Learning Teacher Fellowships; and the Virtual Learning Network.

2. Going back to study

Many educational institutions can provide courses on all manner of ICT-related subjects, and will be able to offer advice and support on what to study. On page 20, we talk to two teachers who decided to take online courses at the University of Canterbury’s College of

Education (www.education.canterbury.ac.nz).

There are also private training establishments, such as Natcoll. With premises in Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch (its tutors can also visit schools), it runs a number of NZQA approved digital media courses as part of its Creating Futures programme (www.creatingfutures.ac.nz).

“We’ve developed courses specifically for teachers,” said Val Gyde. “An emerging new trend is in the area of freeware. This year we have been offering introductory courses in Blender. In 2009, we will be introducing courses in ‘Game Development and Design’ and ‘Digital Video and Audio Production’.”

3. Vendor training

Your equipment suppliers can be a valuable source of training. When you get new gear, make it part of the deal and arrange for follow up support. Also, many manufacturers are offering access to extensive online resources, especially with things like interactive whiteboards and videoconferencing

“We run the mimio connect network for New Zealand,” explained Marcel Ollman (www.mimio.school.nz). “It has digital learning objects, interactive websites, training videos, user guides. In addition, we provide support via email, live chat and a 0800 number. I do encourage schools to have a plan. If there’s no training and support everything can just fall over.”

4. Staff training

Of course, schools can arrange for ongoing or specific training themselves, either by using staff members or enlisting outside help.

5. Your peers

Learn from your colleagues – they are arguably the best sources of advice and information available. Find out what they’re up to in their classroom. Share their experiences and see if it’ll work for you. People are usually more than willing to help out and you know it’s tried and tested, not something out of a book or a ‘strategy’ session.

6. Self-help

Finally, the buck stops with you – read around the subject, go to conferences, and try new things.

“Most people who know how to use ICT are self taught,” said Leigh Blacknall. He suggests a three-point plan to get you started:

  • Get broadband at home and a wireless modem, so you can use the Internet as an integrated feature in your life all over the house;
  • Start connecting to online communities in your teaching area, read people’s blogs, take an interest in technology. You’ll make friends, and start sharing ideas and resources;
  • Think about starting your own blog – it will all start to flow.

Overall, the impact of training is that teachers will get the confidence to try new things.

“They can reaffirm that they do not have to be experts but facilitators,” said New Era IT Education Manager John Phelps. “They get the confidence to become part of the students’ world.”

Niki Davis, Professor of e-Learning at Canterbury University believes that every teacher using ICT is innovating but the challenge is doing more. ‘It’s getting past the steep learning curve of using a new application and making best use of it.”

As part of the ‘Future Trends in Emerging Technologies’ course at the Open Poly (www.openpolytechnic.ac.nz), Gerry McCullough gets people to scour the Web for the next best thing and then present a case for how it will help their teaching.

“ICT is just tools to learn – there always will be a place for the passionate teacher. But the benefits of becoming familiar with ICT will keep you current with your subject and earn you more credibility from your peers – as well as your students.”

GREG ADAMS IS EDITOR OF INTERFACE.

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Categories: Article, Issue 1