CHOICES, CHOICES - Information Technology
It used to be simple for parents to determine the amount of 'information and communication technology' in a school; a simple tour of the campus and a count of the computers was the main indicator. This could then be supplemented with questions to the only person who understood what the machines did, the ICT co-ordinator (this is back when the acronym ICT was in its infancy).
Today the reality is light years away. ICT is embedded across many, if not all, curriculum areas and the ICT co-ordinator is no longer the sole user and custodian of the hardware and software.
There is little doubt that greater access to computer resources in primary and secondary schools over the past 20 years has been a big plus for students, as highlighted in a recent National Science Foundation report (see www.tinyurl.com/lew8h) which focused part of its research on 'IT Use at School and at Home' in the US.
Fortunately, many parents are nowadays more familiar about ICT, but what indicators are available when evaluating the provision and use in a school? An excellent starting point is probably the school website. Most start off by taking the prospectus or parents' booklet and putting it statically online, where it stays until reviewed a year later. At the next level, the site becomes more dynamic and interactive, providing more regular information, possibly supplemented with e-mail newsletters.
Only after this does the website or online environment usually start to embrace learning and teaching; examples of students' work start to appear online, details of specific curriculum maps and plans, homework, teacher expectations. It's at this point that many schools build an online password-protected area (an 'intranet'), where individual students can save their work and access it securely from school or home, known as a content management system.
Next comes a full blown-virtual learning environment which not only allows teachers to set and monitor class and individual tasks online and store student work but also provides collaborative environments to allow teachers and students to work together. Laid on top of all this will be the path for individual assessment, recording and reporting so that parents can, securely, follow their children's progress in real time, not just when the paper reports arrive at the end of term.
It is still worth having a tour around the school to view the hardware. Don't focus only on desktop computers, look for other items, in particular digital cameras (still and video), data logging and control technology equipment, interactive whiteboards, laptops, PDAs and data projectors. Ask if the students have access to multimedia resources for producing videos, podcasts and assignments. Does the music department have a network of electronic keyboards? What are modern foreign languages departments using?
Any school without internet connectivity across a school network will be disadvantaging students. Hong Kong has a brilliant infrastructure compared with most other Asian countries and high-speed, reliable, affordable broadband should be in place through the school.
Access to the internet is no longer an option but an entitlement. Ask for a copy of the school internet usage policy, sometimes referred to as an 'Acceptable Use Policy'. Ask staff and students what they use the internet for.
The place of ICT in most schools has obviously changed, mainly because of the increased training that teachers have received - some formal, but much of it self-generated in their own time.
All of the above becomes purely a public relations exercise if the teachers, and other school staff (including the technical support team), do not have the motivation and skills to decide how best to use ICT in their own curriculum areas and then be given the time to integrate ICT into their lives and in the lives of their students.
If you wish to dig deeper, you could ask about the school's continuing professional development programmes for staff, an excellent indicator of how seriously its philosophy embraces new technology.
The role of librarians, often overlooked and underappreciated, should have changed, from being the custodians of books to include that of information experts.
Ask the school what it is doing to teach information literacy skills; those parents who have helped students with homework and have been overwhelmed with hundreds of thousands of results on a Google search for 'Victorians' will know exactly what the frustrations are.
What is emerging in the evolution of ICT is its primary use to support individual student learning. The key questions boil down to: 'How is ICT used in the school to support the needs of my son or daughter, and how can I help support this at home?'
After all, the whole learning process is a joint effort, between students, the school community and parents.
Chris Smith runs a consultancy to support international schools across Southeast Asia, specifically in the area of ICT. Visit www.shambles.net/csmith
Find out more
Education and Manpower Bureau's site for IT in Education: tinyurl.com/l2pqz
Involving parents in ICT in schools (Becta, the UK's lead partner in ITC in schools): tinyurl.com/a96hj
Shambles school support site, IT page: www.shambles.net/ict/
Shambles' Working with Parents page: tinyurl.com/oknru