Getting IT right requires consultation

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 01 May, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 01 May, 2004, 12:00am

In yet another 'top down' approach, Information Technology in Education - Way Forward, presents the latest thinking of the Education and Manpower Bureau on the future of IT in our schools.

Terms like 'our vision', 'what we will support' and how 'our strategic goals' will be achieved illustrate this control model of policy development. There are no references to consultations with teachers and others, but comments and suggestions are invited.

Hopefully, the EMB will receive many. The way forward with IT in education needs to be considered carefully if appropriate decisions are to be made. It is not clear how experience gained during the past five years has been incorporated in its proposals, although research completed by the Centre for Information Technology at the University of Hong Kong is mentioned.

It is noted that 'the views of experts, academics, school heads, teachers and private firms' have been considered, but there are no references to these. Why this policy statement has been prepared and published now, before a report by a consultant is available in mid-2004, is not explained.

A second area that submissions might address concerns the 'vision' for IT. In some ways, this is similar to five years ago, it is still expected to 'prepare students for the information age' and turn schools into 'dynamic and interactive learning institutions'.

However, earlier ideas about 'paradigm shifts' in teaching and learning, changes to the 'mind set and culture among teachers, parents and students', and 'transformations' of school education are apparently no longer part of the 'vision'. Now, IT is described in more modest terms as 'a tool for enhancing the effectiveness of learning and teaching'.

This could be regarded as a more realistic goal about what might be achieved in view of the limited adoption of IT in schools in the past five years. It is consistent with current 'transmission of content' modes of teaching supported with presentation software, and student projects based around locating information from the Web. When used in these ways, IT is a tool and very little about teaching and learning needs to change.

However, in developing a ''vision' it might also be useful to think about the challenges presented by new technologies, as well as the skills students need to have to be socially competent in the 21st century. IT brings something new to the classroom and the implications for what is learnt (knowledge) and how (pedagogy) should be examined. These include the kinds of knowledge that can be made accessible and how these fit with the needs of students today, and in lifelong learning. For instance, if opportunities 'to make use of IT to work collaboratively with peers as well as ... seek input and advice from people of different sectors in the community (local and international)' do materialise, the way students learn will differ from what presently happens in schools.

The implications for teachers - whose authority currently derives from knowledge of content and skills associated with the presentation of information - when students can locate the information they need from a variety of digital sources or experts in other places need to be examined. The skills students need to handle the technology, and to take greater responsibility for their own learning, also need to be considered carefully.

The idea, introduced in the Five Year Strategy, of a paradigm shift encapsulates the kinds of changes with which many schools need to grapple. The idea that IT is a tool which enhances current practices may not be an adequate vision on which to base strategic goals.

A third area that submissions might consider concerns professional development for teachers. Courses in basic skills will be discontinued. Professional development will be subject-based and focused on how IT can be used to develop innovative pedagogical practices such as 'exploratory learning' and 'collaborative enquires'. Initiatives to facilitate sharing and collaboration among teachers through conferences, online discussions and databases of learning resources are also proposed as ways to promote good practices.

Another initiative to consider would be to create opportunities for teachers to experiment with new technologies and share their experiences with others. A proposal to do this has been outlined in the recently updated Masterplan II for IT in Education in Singapore. One of its objectives is to promote a research culture in schools about emerging technologies in education. Overseas experience shows that encouraging groups of teachers to explore what can be done with IT can be an effective way to promote change in schools.

As a discussion document, Way Forward will help individual schools to clarify future directions for IT in teaching and learning. Many aspects are dependant on other curriculum reforms, changes in the working conditions of teachers (teaching loads, class sizes), and the allocation of sufficient resources to support school-based initiatives. There is a great deal to be done if new technologies are to occupy a more central place in the learning experiences of students in Hong Kong schools.

John Pearson is an associate professor in the Faculty of Education at the University of Hong Kong. His research and teaching centres on the use of information and communication technologies in education.