Monday, 14 February 2011

Why staff ICT skills matter

Once upon a time a teacher could walk into a classroom with some chalk, a pile of papers and talk. Students would usually listen, take notes with a pen and more paper and the topic would be discussed, examined and, with a bit of luck, eventually passed. Lesson followed lesson, people came and people went, boards were scrawled on, cleaned then covered again. If a student was lucky he’d get the notes down before they disappeared and would remember that evening enough of what had been discussed to complete his homework too.

Now a teacher doesn’t even have to walk into a classroom but for those that do they are confronted by students with an array of computer screens and keyboards, some maybe their own, others standard issue affairs and in place of the blackboard there’s an electronic whiteboard connected to a computer, a projector and maybe other gadgets too. Those that aren’t in a classroom may be in a virtual classroom, staring at a screen where students’ head lurk in little boxes or text files across other little boxes in different colours as they converse with them and each other. They may even just be sitting at home with a laptop with their students sitting at their homes with their laptops sifting through a website for notes and indications of what they should be doing next.

ICT skills are in evidence everywhere in teaching and in learning. At the start it’s all about impressions as students view institution websites and publications to decide where they shall study next. There they witness the design talents on-line of a marketing team offering illustrations and extracts from a curriculum and decide whether that could be the place for them. On the way they may get a glimpse of some tutors at work in a classroom or a video of their students saying how much they like life there. Sometimes they’ll see some sample course content and learning material too which some tutors have supplied after more than a few requests by that pushy girl from Marketing or found themselves being filmed doing something that makes students smile and look interested at the same time.

If staff have managed to escape being dragged in to the marketing campaigns themselves they sure don’t avoid Open Days or Enrolment Events advertised on the backs of buses or the local radio station to such an extent that they enter a hall throbbing with potential candidates for their courses and clasping certificates for whatever they’ve managed to pass to date. Those certificates, those posters, those radio interviews, the letters inviting parents to come along and the lists on the table of what staff are offering this year and how to pay for it – all created with someone’s ICT skills and, increasingly nowadays, with the teaching staff’s ICT skills in evidence.

As students sit a desk and start to chat to their prospective tutor there is a two-way process emerging already. The staff member is eyeing their behaviour, demeanour and wondering how much trouble they’ll cause in class while the other is looking at the documents scattered on the table, the type of laptop the chap’s using, what applications he has open on it, what browser he’s using and wondering why he’s writing things down or impressed that he has a notes app. on his mobile or data in an on-line spreadsheet to inform the discussion in real time.

See you’ve got Firefox, Sir.” could even be the first words from the student to which there may seem to be a myriad possible responses from the interviewer when it is more likely that there are just four.


  1. Yes, I’m trying out version 4.02. Released yesterday. Like the new tabs and it’s fast isn’t it?
  2. Oh, er, the browser. Yes, well-spotted! Have to use these ruddy forms admin give us. Wouldn’t be so bad if the wireless connection worked but can’t seem to get on-line.
  3. Have I? Right. Good. Now, how can I help you?
  4. Glance at parent for a clue.

Immediately, the student, and perhaps the parent too, gets one of four impressions of the staff member’s ICT knowledge if not skills: from ‘on a part with mine, by the seems of it’, through ‘could be good but spotted a weakness’ and ‘he’s not at home with this stuff’ to ‘this guy hasn’t a clue’. That doesn’t mean that he’s not the best History teacher in the world or won’t fire them through their Health & Social Care National Diploma at a rate of knots with distinctions all round but it will set part of the scene in the mind of many an observer, including, of course, the Staff Development Manager who happens to be listening in at the next desk.

Let’s assume the interview goes well and after a few more communications of various type and quality the student decides to join, is accepted and arrives in September for something called Induction. This is where things really start to matter. The student has made one big decision and is rather set on a track now for probably at least a year if not two or more. There in a room somewhere he’ll be addressed by the person who will be the main player in his academic life for some time. Before he gets to the room, though, he needs to find it. The tutor thought a map and some signs might be useful. All the other tutors did too so there, displayed in abundant clarity on a noticeboard, walls or columns, is a collection of how well a host of staff can put half a dozen words on pieces of A4 paper and manage to add large black arrows.

In the room the multitude gathers and, possibly for one of the few times in their post-school academic lives, they look up and to the front with some interest. They are ready to be impressed. They want to be impressed. They appreciate that they may not be, of course, in all cases and in those instances they’ll be comparing what they know they can do to what the person at the front does in one of the few areas they can assess at this time. ICT skills. They need to go away with some genuine belief that the teachers they’ll be stuck with can handle the basic equipment and, preferably, show some talent and efficiency using ICT to communicate. They’ve got in the car. They need to know they’re not going to crash. Or they will be making some early judgements and mentally noting that this or that teacher is struggling with something that they can fix or do better.

The smartboard eventually becomes visible on a bright early autumn day when someone closes the window blinds. And there’s the presentation. Or is it? Did they have to watch as the teacher laboriously searched his desktop for the PowerPoint icon and then give them a preview of the first few little slides before the full screen view finally emerged? Can they read the text? Is it just the same as what he’s saying or more like wallpaper? Or something in between that keeps them focussed and provides opportunities for learning rather than mere spoon-feeding? Indeed, do they get surprised by a website or a web version of a presentation they can view at their leisure another time should they wish to? Let us hope they don’t get some dreadful PDF that has to be scrolled and scrolled and scrolled and makes them wonder why it wasn’t just handed out in the first place. Or, worse, a Word document that requires things to be installed before it will show anything at all, or is entirely in Arial font or the appalling Comic Sans that primary school teachers used to use in when there were only five different fonts in Windows 3.1. Some students may now even be wishing the teacher had used Courier New which has a kind of retro look and could even be regarded as rebelliously cool in 2011.
Now a good communicator may get away for a while with simply excellent speaking abilities, moving around and holding their attention, questioning, interacting, inspiring and informing with mere words, panache and plenty of expression and body language. But it will only be a while and, sooner or later, the ICT skills will be on show. And ICT skills really are on show – unlike one’s subject knowledge, dress sense or humour how a teacher puts text and images on paper or on screen, how they record and store data, how they manage classroom equipment are all out there, day in, day out, night or day in fact in some instances, for viewing by whoever looks on-line, unscrambles the handout in their pocket, thumbs through the course material, checks their progress or reads the e-mail, text message or letter home.

No teacher today can avoid ICT or hide their abilities to utilise it.

The induction group has started to look around the classroom. What’s on the walls? Where once there might have been acres of that coloured paper that faded after a few days in the sun with a scalped white paper border and individually cut-out letters and shiny photos carefully arranged in the design there is now a mass of A4 white print-outs, all in black print, illustrating what students did last year or posters advertising last year’s dance and trip to Alton Towers which could be in colour. There are prints of digital photos taken at an event. And then there’s the notice that tells them they can’t use their mobile phones, eat or drink and what might happen should they attempt to download something they’re not supposed to. The IT Department notices are generally a good guide to how well the equipment will function and the range of useful software likely to be available on the computers once they get to use them.

The small print A4 sheets in Times New Roman with a heading in a slightly larger font in bold and red are not a good sign. The big bold, fun-looking Check Our VLE for what you can and can’t do! Or We do IT well to help you do it well! Now they’re going to make the students more inclined to have faith in the team of technicians often only slightly older than themselves and, more importantly, their teacher’s ability to deal wit them effectively when the printer gives up the ghost of the last person has left a load of plugs dangling from the back of the staff computer.

It may be tempting to say that the teacher may have been issued with a set of standard documents or materials for Induction but this is their chance to establish in the minds of their cohort where they stand. I’m sorry about the quality of this presentation / document / handout – I did suggest they used x, y or z application or put them on-line for you but... will go along way towards restoring a bit of faith that all is not lost with the fellow they’re with although it does say something about that person’s ability to influence those who produced the rubbish in the first place. That also brings us to managers who often manage to keep away from students until something goes wrong and they need to be disciplined but do, or certainly should, have time to see and comment on drafts of general department materials. They could have a huge influence, both from ensuring that the best skills are used in the process and in setting an excellent example themselves. Unless they have good ICT skills themselves it can be very difficult for managers to comment constructively on items or administrative procedures. They also need to be aware of what is possible even if their own abilities mean they could not do it themselves.

In terms of teaching staff’s ICT skills, however, it is of fundamental importance that managers know not only how confident their staff feel in a range of activities and processes but also how confident they themselves feel – if not in actually implementing those skills but at least in knowing what could and should be done and in leading the way in negotiations to attain higher standards and, of really significant importance, demonstrating to their staff and colleagues by their own good practice.

Most managers have been teachers themselves in the recent past and not having to teach the students now is no excuse for not maintaining their own ICT skills. In similar vein to how students perceive their teachers so too will many teachers view their managers and be influenced by them for better or for worse.

In this area, whilst demonstrating excellent practice is key, there are areas where managers will have more effective input than teachers. This could be in the processes used to record progress, store data or promote their curriculum. How they distribute information to their staff through presentations, reports, e-mail and more – all of this almost daily activity will set a standard by which they will be judged. For better or for worse. The manager who regularly sends out all staff e-mails with a large Word attachment or the spreadsheet that umpteen people have to complete and return is asking for trouble. Sooner or later someone has to tell them that publishing a single document somewhere with which staff can collaborate or to which they can contribute is far more efficient on many levels. That in itself will inspire some staff to use similar techniques when asking their students to share or collaborate on a task or activity. For enrolment data or progress reports substitute an on-line set of data. For last month’s minutes of a meeting substitute the on-line blog of last session’s discussion and you’ll get the idea.

The manager himself may, indeed, have acquired actual management skills as well as teaching skills and therein might lie an ability to utilise project management software to display and share information regarding how well a particular course is progressing and the contributions being made and tasks allocated to various tutors and colleagues. Substitute course, tutor and colleague and insert group assignment, student and other students respectively and there is a tool that could be used in class instead of the office backwaters or boardroom.

Moving back to the Induction session again there will be the essential distribution of timetables. It’s the one piece of paper that students do tend to carry around and stick on their wall at home. The set of 15 to 20 will be a daily reference for many a course tutor or whoever answers his phone on a Monday morning when that student’s mother calls to say they’ll be late. They’re always tables and probably Word tables with a lot of lines and occasionally more than one font. Even if the institution has some ancient software that produces these automatically and managers believe they have ticked a box or two for effective use of ICT in that respect following years of attempting to solve the riddle of rooms, people and times manually the resultant print-outs are seldom examples of clear and wonderful presentation of information. Tutors and students with some semblance of awareness that such items ubiquitous display does relate to how they are themselves perceived will go home that night and produce a much smarter version. Those clear and attractive efforts will get noticed and gradually, even if students’ versions end up in an array of pink and totally inappropriate fonts for their own use, the second generation of official ones posted on boards and left lying around classrooms will look professional and generally give the impression that those staff care enough and have the basic abilities to make a difference. That can only bode well for the future.

The smarter tutors may also have added some formulae to their timetable that indicate how many hours they’re doing and contrasting that to what they’re supposed to be doing. That can be particularly useful when, as is so likely to be the case, the timetable changes every so often during the first month or two.
After Induction the students finally start coming in or, in direct learning instances, opening their handbooks or downloading materials, and get to see just what their teachers can do. There’ll be text in documents galore – handouts, session notes, instructions, forms, surveys, questionnaires, leaflets and manuals that their teacher has prepared.

There’ll be lists of names and numbers, modules and tasks, who’s done which and when. There’ll be pie charts and bar charts and line graphs that even if based on data the teacher hasn’t originated will need to be produced and knowing how to use spreadsheets and manage data can make a big difference to record keeping and progress reporting both to management and students.

Presentations will be here there and everywhere, still seen as the principal component of a staple ILT diet by many which begs another question to be examined later.

A world without images or graphics would be a very tedious one and teachers will be expected to add them to a range of documents at the very least. Finding suitable ones they are allowed to use and managing the size of ever-increasingly high resolution digital camera pictures is becoming necessary if storage areas, VLE or e-mail uploads are not to exceed limits. Some will be taking their own pictures and getting students to do so too.
Whether it’s through Firefox or not, the internet will play a major part of any course and how teachers utilise its vast resources will be seen. Whilst the software used may be standard issue, it will readily be apparent whether staff can search efficiently. The number of staff that I have observed locating websites by searching for Google, finding that site and opening the home page, entering website addresses there and then clicking on the site link is remarkable. All they had to do was enter the address in the address bar. One step as opposed to four. Having said that, students also do this far too often but the fact that they remain unchallenged in this and a myriad other inefficiencies shows a need for training.

Even those who seem proficient in searching start to look amateur when initial terms don’t seem to come up with what they seek and some simple but effective search terms could aid their quest considerable had they been aware of them. Having found a site, do they bookmark it or add to a favourites list in a manner that makes it readily accessible next time for themselves or their students, probably in another room? Can they quickly display the page in a more accessible way for those at the back or with poor sight? Or do they simply apologise and get students to move closer? Everyone copies and pastes text from a web page of some form – some a great deal. Ignoring whether they should or shouldn’t for the moment, do staff do this in a smart and effective manner with the required chunks now neatly displayed in a document or presentation slide, or data nicely set out on a spreadsheet ready to be analysed, sorted or stored? Or does the pasted bit stand out like a sore thumb from their own text and annoy those working with it by insisting on trying to connect to a web page whenever it is accidentally clicked or thumped on a smartboard?

We may not expect all students to be as aware as they should of the reliability of information on the web but teachers certainly should be capable of speaking authoritatively on the subject and being able to recognise elements of a page that may give rise to contention or is there doubt as to what its content meant?

There’ll be e-mail communications to send, receive and manage and teacher’s inboxes will range from the neat and tidy ordered folders to the mass of mail mostly unopened that they must get round to sorting out one day. Are they aware of the abbreviations that students will use or will they panic, thinking someone is sending them Lots Of Love when really they just think something’s funny? Do they know that there are other ways students like to communicate these days and that e-mail amongst the young is rapidly being seen as old-fashioned just as many of those over 40 might now regard sticking stamps on envelopes and posting in a box somewhere as something we only do when dealing with mother?

Although the term podcast seems to have come and gone the business of recording discussions has become simpler with smartphones being able to do so at the touch of an icon. Video has long been both the bane of some teachers’ lives, the black rectangle in the PowerPoint show that worked fine at home but refuses to display in class as well as something, at the other extreme, some students and staff seem to be able to take, store and display in a matter of minutes whenever the mood takes them. In the middle is a vast array of teachers who would often like to capture some moments or share a visual process and may well have the kit to do so but never quite pluck up the courage to do it.

Not many years ago it was only the few geeks or web specialists who published material on-line. Then VLEs arrived and provided a way for staff to do so in a fairly standard and managed style of web page. Now, through blogs, wikis and literally thousands of web tools, anyone prepared to spend a short time experimenting with and becoming familiar with a selection of applications can publish with ease and do so in a stylish, smart, professional or fun way to suit their audience. Social networking tools have transformed the communication routes and interactivity between students at large outside their institutions and many expect to continue in similar vein in the classroom. Some teachers have kept up but many can only stand and stare and worry about something called e-safety the e-word that above all others has contributed to fear and progress in this particular field. It is now possible to publish on-line not only a complete set of course materials, tutor presentations, reference material and but also videos of the tutor’s lessons themselves. There are simply massive sets of resources on almost any topic imaginable from which a tutor could select to assist in delivering teaching. How good are they at locating these, assessing their quality and accessibility, not to mention actually transferring them or linking to them so that they can actually make good use of them?

Do teachers share their successes and failures in their own development and use of new technology? Do they know how? Even if the teacher we met at the start of the whole process has been impressive in his ICT skills to this point the extent to which he has since sat back and thought that he’d learned enough may indicate how useful he could be at inspiring others to move forward or how he will continue to cope as the pace of change in technology and what we can achieve with it moves ever faster forward and trickles yet further down into general family and social life. Out of the teenager’s bedroom and into the living room, lounge and classrooms, ICT and what it can do has become part of daily life now.