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Last Updated: Monday, 22 November, 2004, 17:15 GMT
How computers can help in class
By Justin Parkinson
BBC News education reporter

Boy using computer
Computers are everywhere in schools
Computers have become part of most children's school day.

UK education departments have put hundreds of millions of pounds into "e-learning", connecting pupils to resources barely imaginable a decade ago.

Many children also use software designed to work at their own pace, with marks returned confidentially online.

A gifted child or one with special needs will never feel embarrassed again for sticking out.

'Personalised'

That's how the theory goes, at least.

Critics complain that lazy, uninspired teachers are plonking pupils in front of screens and leaving them to work on their own - a surrogate, cheap classroom assistant.

Steve Farnsworth
We are adjusting better now
Steve Farnsworth, Sheffield

The amount of time at the keyboard cannot be good for them either, they argue.

The Prince of Wales has bemoaned the replacement of "teaching and inspiration" by "computer-driven modules".

But could it just be that staff, as mere human beings, are taking longer to develop than technology?

Steve Farnsworth, deputy director for schools in Sheffield, thinks school information and communication technology (ICT) is gradually adapting to children's needs.

Hi-tech industry

Attending a conference in London organised by the educational software company RM, he said: "When computers were introduced in the 1980s they were terrifically motivating, although the technology was limited.

"Then, when money was put into IT in the 1990s, the core system didn't change that much.

"But we are adjusting better now. Pupils can have their own personalised learning."

One 12-year-old pupil, he says, gained a GCSE-level qualification in computing by taking a mostly-online course in special classes run after school.

Alan Marshall
Alan Marshall thinks computers add to teaching time

Sheffield, whose employment market suffered after the collapse of mining and steelmaking in the 1980s, has received more than 1bn in European and government grants in the past few years.

Of this, 240m has gone on learning and skills.

As the city tries to develop hi-tech industries, a large chunk is being spent on the South Yorkshire E-learning Project.

Alan Marshall, head of information systems for Sheffield's schools, thinks that, far from making teachers lazier, computers will actually make them do more work for which they are trained.

The government's workload agreement is already removing more admin tasks - like taking the register or photocopying - from their day.

Mr Marshall said: "A quarter of a teacher's time is actually spent teaching. The rest goes on getting ready and issues like discipline.

"With computers helping, the individual child gets far more one-on-one teaching time. Staff are able to talk and offer advice to children who are doing courses tailored to their own standards.

"We are not saying that children should be using computers all the time, but there should be access to it, to help create a broad and balanced curriculum."

Nick Capstick
We have to have a massive impact because we are not sure how long the kids are going to stay
Nick Capstick, Swindon

Computers seem to offer more flexibility to mixed-ability classes, allowing children to progress according to their ability, not that of the class as a whole.

Nick Capstick, head of Drove Primary, Swindon, is a strong advocate of their benefits.

His school is set amid the town's red-light district, one of the most impoverished areas of southern England. The 450 children speak 30 different languages.

Dr Capstick said: "The impact of computers on our teaching and learning is phenomenal."

Since the school started using ICT to help teach science three years ago, the proportion of 11 year olds achieving the government's required standard has doubled - from 48% to more than 96%.

Language difficulties

Dr Capstick puts much of the success of computers - with add-ons like interactive whiteboards - down to uses which cross language barriers.

They are more visual and interactive than traditional blackboard lessons and they offer huge resources.

Dr Capstick said: "One boy came recently and the language he spoke was Tagalog, with little or no English.

"There aren't exactly a lot of resources in Tagalog, so a teacher had to look online for a dictionary.

"We translated a few words and phrases, like 'good boy' and 'chair', to introduce him to the language. It helped his confidence and accelerated his learning."

The acceleration of learning is something computers are meant to help.

Dr Capstick claims that, on average, pupils who stay at his school for 23 months learn 17% quicker than the government demands for its national curriculum standards.

'Waiting for the revolution'

Of course, Tagalog speakers will not learn fluent English in a few months, but they will get more out of lessons with computers.

As more than a quarter of Drove's highly mobile pupils leave every year, Dr Capstick describes the school's role as an "SAS-style operation".

"We have to have a massive impact because we are not sure how long the kids are going to stay," he said.

Despite all this, a study - Computers and Student Learning - carried out by the German economic research group CESifo - found that ICT was only useful to raising standards up to a point.

With more frequent use, its influence appeared to be counter-productive.

Mr Farnsworth, from Sheffield, agreed, saying: "Everybody has been waiting for the revolution. The latest stage of development has been working well.

"But the crucial part of education remains the pupil's relationship with the teacher."


SEE ALSO:
Doubts about school computer use
22 Nov 04 |  Education
Students not robots, says Charles
16 Nov 04 |  Education
Does teacher still know best?
07 Jan 04 |  Education


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