Tech tools and the new teacher

March 2011


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Many teachers face students who seem to have better digital skills than they do, especially when it comes to the internet. Empowering students through ICT is a challenge.

The default response to a request for comment on any aspect of pre-service teacher education is usually to highlight the deficiencies.

So, at the outset we need to say two things. Firstly, there are some innovative and promising e-learning practices in initial teacher education (ITE) programmes in New Zealand. Secondly, there is too little comprehensive research across those programmes to make reliable generalisations. What follows is a partial take on the state of the play, based on personal experience and informal interviews.

The government’s ICT strategy for schools 2006–2010, Enabling the 21st Century Learner, made some mention of the place of e-learning in ITE, foreshadowing working with the New Zealand Teachers Council and teacher education providers to ensure that an “increasing number of pre-service programmes include ICT literacy skills and effective e-learning pedagogies”.

Given the unquantifiable nature of the word “increasing” there is little doubt that this goal would have been achieved. However, whether most beginning teachers are now entering the profession as both confident personal users of a range of technologies and with an understanding of effective e-learning pedagogy is arguable.

It is easy to lazily stereotype pre-service lecturers (wearing cardies with banda ink stains) as educational dinosaurs photocopying notes for their next lecture while a few ‘pioneers’ turn those notes into Powerpoint presentations, while their students tweet their followers about the irrelevance of the experience.

This would be unfair. There are innovative uses of e-learning in New Zealand ITE. It appears that most students use a learning management system (e.g. Moodle) as part of their training and this sometimes includes participation in some form of online professional learning community. Most classes utilise data projectors for displaying materials or exploring web pages. Students are often guided and encouraged to integrate ICTs into learning areas. There is also promising exploration of the use of digital portfolios as both a developmental record and showcase for future employment.

However, the impression is that such practices are not yet embedded across the system and that often the use of e-learning tends to be an event rather than a seamless and central expectation of teacher preparation. Few students appear to be experiencing a truly blended ITE which might model expectations in a career in which e-learning is central.

The deployment of digital tools and resources is not the focus of a pre-service teacher education. That focus is to equip prospective teachers with ways of knowing their students and their learning needs, how best to address those needs and how to evaluate the impact of their actions. Part of knowing students is knowing about their digital lives and digital futures and aspirations. ICTs are an increasingly important way of finding out about students, their learning needs and ways of addressing these. ICTs can also enhance student engagement in their learning and help them and their teachers assess the impact of their teaching.

A teacher education programme should be using the range of e-learning strategies needed to meet these ends to produce digitally literate students who able to:

  • develop proficiency with the tools of technology;
  • build relationships with others to pose and solve problems collaboratively and cross-culturally;
  • design and share information for local and global communities to meet a variety of purposes;
  • manage, analyse and synthesise multiple streams of simultaneous information;
  • critique, analyse, evaluate and create multimedia texts;
  • attend to the ethical responsibilities required by these complex environments.

To achieve these goals, a contemporary teacher education programme should model the sort of e-learning approaches we see in our high-performing schools, with an expectation that prospective teachers develop a digital portfolio which captures their professional growth and identity and which they are able to present to principals as they apply for their first (and future) positions.

The portfolio might include evidence (including video evidence) of – and reflection on – theory, their practicum experiences, unit and lesson plans they have produced, individual child case studies, and their emerging professional beliefs and aspirations.

Every teacher education class should have a shared digital space (either institutional or using a blog or other Web 2.0 tool) in which they can access class resources, suggest and share their own resources and be introduced to the critical external sources of support which every teacher needs moving into their career.

There should be spaces in which there is collaboration across a variety of communities to support teachers’ immediate needs and to deepen engagement with educational theory. This would fulfil the expectation that contemporary teachers operate within face-to-face and online professional communities.

These collaborations might be of particular value during the vulnerable period immediately after beginning teaching practice when the complexities of the profession are becoming evident. Collaborative online communities could be the gateway to other relevant online communities external to the institution, including communities of beginning teachers. Lecturers and students might also explore (and sometimes reject) the uses of platforms such as Twitter and Facebook for educational collaboration between teachers and between teachers and students.

Powerpoint should be just one of the many tools being used by lecturers and students as they explore the learning areas of the curriculum and the connections between them. Ideally, seminars, projects and presentations – both collaborative and individual – would utilise interactive whiteboards (IWBs) and seamlessly feature tools from, for example:

Software for Learning (from Voicethread to online surveys).

Digital resources profiled through TKI (websites, research, collaborative projects).

Digital learning objects from Our Digistore.

Games and virtual environments such as Second Life.

Courses might also explore how the hand-held devices students bring to their classes might be used for educational purposes.

The use of these tools and resources would be accompanied by critical interrogation of the ‘why and when’ of usage. And, importantly, the tools would be situated within the collaborative learning endeavour between learners and teachers, not as something to be appropriated by teachers.

A good example of the latter is the way many primary students in particular use interactive whiteboards as part of their everyday learning and are encouraged to do so not just by the way the teacher structures learning opportunities, but by the placement of the IWBs (away from the centre-front of the classroom and at an accessible height).

ICTs provide increasing opportunities for mentoring of beginning teachers. The dependence on relatively infrequent observations as a source of evidence of professional development could be augmented by, for example, the use of Skype video to provide less intrusive and more frequent and normalised opportunities for observation and feedback, without the burden of always having to arrange face-to-face visits and sometimes artificial lessons. Issues of privacy and practicality can be dealt with.

This all assumes that lecture spaces are equipped with the requisite computers, screens, projectors, IWBs and high speed broadband. However, those in pre-service teacher education are often faced with the same issues of access to technologies that classroom teachers face, with few having ongoing access to the technical infrastructure needed to position e-learning as a normal, seamless part of teacher education.

One wonders if prospective engineers or architects will be faced with similar constraints and whether our universities are prepared to resource to ensure the images from their teacher education brochures can be a reality in their programmes?

It is hard to imagine any professional beginning their career in 2010 without the digital literacies and competencies we’ve summarised here, but undoubtedly some beginning teachers are. This remains a challenge for new teachers, but also for their lecturers and institutions, as digital literacy becomes an increasingly important criterion for judging the quality of their graduates.

Phil Coogan (Cognition Education) and Derek Wenmoth (Core Education)ves this open-ended, divergent education process and experimentation in learning as you go doesn’t coincide well with the standard convergent model of education. “But this is where the power is.”