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Research Summary 3: Teacher PD in ICT

April 5, 2010 1 comment

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That teacher quality is a major influence on student learning is generally accepted (ACER, 2005; ACT DET, 2009). Beyond pre-service training and previous education, continuing professional development (PD) is one of the major tools available to influence teacher quality. PD is a successful instrument to implement educational reform and importantly, improve student outcomes (CCA, 2008; QLD DET, 2010; Robinson, 2008). The rapid pace of change which typifies the ICT landscape, combined with the huge potential afforded by truly engaging with the technologies makes ICT-related PD a critically important element of curriculum reform.

The broad aim of this review is “to find out why it is that, despite considerable resources being dedicated to developing the use of ICT in schools in recent years, there is a lack of impact on teachers’ everyday practice”(Becta, 2009. p.4). Of particular interest is the shift from away from PD for re-tooling towards a pedagogical focus, and challenges in implementing such change. Where appropriate, I have written with a focus on recent developments in Australia.

Is there a problem?

The issue of ICT teacher PD in Australia is very current due to new education reform policy relating to ICT, the so-called Digital Education Revolution (DER). The recent announcement of $40 million funding for a ‘Digital Strategy for Teachers and School Leaders’ is an indication that PD will be used as an instrument to effect change in teaching practices to support implementation of the DER policy (DEEWR, 2010; Gillard, 2010). The trends in teacher ICT use warrant this action, as according to 2008 survey results only 28% of Australian primary and secondary teachers are making effective use of ICT (Black, 2008; education.au, 2008a,b,c). This disappointing statistic is attributed to “a lack of investment in providing teachers with the techniques and strategies to use computers in their classrooms (Black, 2008)” and as such, Gillard’s announcement is, broadly speaking, an informed response to policy advice.

Challenges in ICT PD

There are numerous challenges in providing teachers with effective PD which are peculiar to ICT and it’s implementation in the classroom. Superficial issues such as lack of time and ease of access to technology are frequently cited, despite the emphasis on access to hardware that has been observed over the past decade (Becta, 2009; Strategic ICT Advisory Service [SICTAS], 2009). Further, due to the fast pace of change in ICT and students’ rapid adoption rates, there is a perception that teachers are being left behind (SICTAS, 2009).

The flurry of activity to address this perceived skills deficit has failed on a number of fronts. Firstly, the typical model for PD through infrequent, one-off courses, is inadequate for mastery of new skills (Becta, 2009; SICTAS, 2009). Secondly, and of fundamental concern, is that a re-tooling approach to ICT PD simply misses the point (Becta, 2009; Prestridge, 2010; SICTAS, 2009): “The separation of how to use the technology in education from why it should be used is a major issue” (SICTAS, 2009, p.21). In the rush to ensure teachers are keeping up with students, administrators have neglected pedagogical concerns despite the fact that is “very evident that a focus on skills is not sufficient to help teachers to develop their pedagogy” (Becta, 2009, p.6). These issues are compounded by negative teacher attitudes towards technology and change (Phelps & Graham, 2008; SICTAS, 2009).

Where do we go?

If our definition of effective use of ICT by teachers is that of transforming practice to engage students in new ways (education.au, 2008a), then surely our model for PD must reflect this. The features of successful or idealised models of ICT PD all centre around a “move from ‘re-tooling’ with infrequent curriculum integration to a model that will enable teachers to see the ‘transforming’ possibilities of ICT” (Prestridge, 2010, p.252), promoting a introspective profession focused on pedagogical concerns.

To achieve this, PD must be continuous, necessitating a rethink of our current short-course approach to PD provision (SICTAS, 2009). The claim that “teachers need to be at the centre of their own learning if they are to change their deep-seated beliefs and habits regarding the use of technology” (Becta, 2009, p.6) forms a common theme (MacDonald, 2008; Prestridge, 2010; SICTAS,2009). MacDonald (2008) notes that 90% of teachers cite colleagues as their primary source of professional learning, in developing his argument for a collaborative, collegial approach to PD; another common theme (Becta, 2009; Prestridge 2010; SICTAS,2009). A range of models have been suggested, including; the Community of Practice (MacDonald, 2008); pre-service/in-service teacher mentoring dyads (Robertshaw, Leary, Walker, Bloxham, & Recker, 2009); students acting as teacher PD mentors (Ingham, 2008); and collaborative groups using ICT (Prestridge, 2010; Robinson, 2008).

I see great value in the Communities of Practice (CoP) model discussed by MacDonald (2008), arguing for the development of “persistent, sustained social network[s] of individuals who share and develop an overlapping knowledge base, set of beliefs, [and] values” (MacDonald, 2008, p.430). This model ticks all the boxes; it is by definition collaborative; focused on teacher needs; and ongoing.  CoP encourages teacher reflection, a vital component of engaging with pedagogical (not just skill-based) concerns. MacDonald also highlights the benefits of a synergistic relationship between education researchers and teachers working together in a CoP. This model promotes the idea that PD facilitators (or education researchers) form a vital part of a CoP, with heightened importance at the inception, asking probing questions to give direction, yet not taking ownership of learning. This model is that of a quality teacher in a constructivist classroom, broadly steering a course, yet allowing enquiry to be the engine of group learning. It is quite remarkable that education administrations which promote this model for learning in schools, are yet to embrace it for professional learning.

Prestridge’s (2010) contribution to the literature is also valuable, not only through an evaluation of using ICT to facilitate a CoP, but further, elucidating the dual role of discussion in this model. She attributes the development of a community to collegial discussion, a vital yet uncomfortable co-requisite to critical discussion, the element of a CoP which can effect change in teachers’ pedagogical beliefs. Prestridge acknowledges the natural tension between collegiality and critique in a CoP, but highlights the necessity for both in transforming attitudes to technology and pedagoigcal beliefs.

Further challenges.

In Australia, there is a move to impose national teacher ICT proficiency standards (DEEWR, 2010; DEST, 2002; SICTAS, 2009) as an instrument to effect policy change:

The slow progress in the uptake of ICT in education requires additional strategies and more accountability. National teacher standards are needed to match the new national curriculum and ensure that we achieve a critical mass in the incorporation of ICT in education. (SICTAS, 2009).

Such a top-down, accountability approach is at odds with a learner-centred, bottom-up approach to teacher PD. This conflict between the constructivist approach to curriculum and teacher PD (Prestridge & Watson, 2002) based on accountability to low-level competencies is absurd. Similarly, the simultaneous desire for small-scale, collaborative, Communities of Practice engaging in professional learning based on teacher needs; and a set of national proficiency standards, is untenable. Perhaps, the ability to measure teacher ICT skills is too tempting for administrators, yet the effect on encouraging meaningful, pedagogical professional development, is quite destructive.

Conclusions

That it is necessary to shift away from ICT-skills centred PD, towards reflective, pedagogically focused learning, is clear. Unless we, as teachers, can justify using ICT and make pedagogical changes to enhance student outcomes, then efforts to ‘teach’ ICT will be superficial. Embracing a Communities of Practice model for ICT PD incorporates the ubiquitous recommendations; that ICT PD should be collaborative; ongoing; focused on teacher needs;and facilitate critical discussion amongst colleagues. Further, it embraces a learner-centred, constructivist approach consistent with our best-practice models for schooling.  Yet, such bottom-up approaches are jeopardised by the desire of administrators to use standards-based accountability systems to ensure a consistent implementation of education policy. This desire to wield this stick is disappointing and surprising given that the carrot (increased student engagement and outcomes) is so juicy.


Is there a problem?

The issue of ICT teacher PD in Australia is very current due to new policy relating to ICT in education, such as the Digital Education Revolution (DER). The recent announcement of $40 million funding for a ‘Digital Strategy for Teachers and School Leaders’ is an indication that PD will be used as an instrument to effect change in teaching practices to support implementation of the DER policy (DEEWR, 2010; Gillard, 2010). The trends in teacher ICT use warrant this action, as according to 2008 survey results only 28% of Australian primary and secondary teachers are making effective use of ICT (Black, 2008; education.au, 2008a,b,c). This disappointing statistic is attributed to “a lack of investment in providing teachers with the techniques and strategies to use computers in their classrooms (Black, 2008)” and as such, Gillard’s announcement is an informed response to policy advice.

Challenges in ICT PD

There are numerous challenges in providing teachers with effective PD which are peculiar to ICT and it’s implementation in the classroom. Superficial issues such as lack of time and ease of access to technology are frequently cited, despite the emphasis on access to hardware that has been observed over the past decade (Becta, 2009; Strategic ICT Advisory Service [SICTAS], 2009). Further,due to the fast pace of change in ICT, and rapid adoption rate by students, there is a perception that teachers are being left behind (SICTAS, 2009).

The flurry of activity to address this perceived skills deficit has failed on a number of fronts. Firstly, the typical model for PD through infrequent, one-off courses has proven to be inadequate to master new skills (Becta, 2009; SICTAS, 2009). Secondly, and of greater concern, is that a re-tooling approach to ICT PD simply misses the point (Becta, 2009; Prestridge, 2010; SICTAS, 2009): “The separation of how to use the technology in education from why it should be used is a major issue”(SICTAS, 2009, p.21). In the rush to ensure teachers are keeping up with students, administrators have neglected pedagogical concerns despite the fact that is “very evident that a focus on skills is not sufficient to help teachers to develop their pedagogy” (Becta, 2009, p.6). These issues are compounded by negative attitudes towards technology and change (Phelps & Graham, 2008; SICTAS, 2009).

Where do we go?

If our definition of effective use of ICT by teachers is that of transforming practice to engage students in new ways (education.au, 2008a), then surely our model for PD must reflect this. The features of successful or idealised models of ICT PD all centre around a “move from ‘re-tooling’ with infrequent curriculum integration to a model that will enable teachers to see the ‘transforming’ possibilities of ICT” (Prestridge, 2010,p.252), promoting a introspective profession focused on peadgogical concerns.

To achieve this PD must be continuous, necessitating a rethink of our current short-course approach (SICTAS, 2009). The claim that “teachers need to be at the centre of their own learning if they are to change their deep-seated beliefs and habits regarding the use of technology” (Becta, 2009, p.6) forms a common theme (Becta, 2009; MacDonald, 2008; Prestridge, 2010; SICTAS,2009). MacDonald (2008) notes that 90% of teachers cite colleagues as their primary source of professional learning in developing his argument for a collaborative, collegial approach to PD; another common theme (Becta, 2009; Prestridge 2010; Robertshaw et al. 2009; SICTAS,2009).

I see great value in the Communities of Practice model discussed by MacDonald (2008).