Learning Technology Research

The Role of the Teacher in the Use of ICT

Steve Wheeler

Keynote Speech delivered to the National Czech Teachers Conference
University of Western Bohemia, Czech Republic
May 20, 2000


In this age of rapid change and uncertainty, there is one thing of which we can be certain - teachers will need to adapt to change if they are to survive and keep pace with new methods and technologies. Arguably the area of most rapid change is that of Information and Communications Technologies (ICT). One of the questions being asked by many teachers is: What will be the long term impact of the introduction of these technologies into the classroom? Another question being raised is: What kind of skills will teachers need to acquire in order to be effective in an ICT based learning environment? This paper will address these two important questions by highlighting the experiences of teachers using ICT in the United Kingdom, and offering some further examples of established ICT teaching and learning applications in schools in the USA.


A great deal of research and development has been conducted in order to bring Information and Communication Technology (ICT) to its current state of art. ICT was originally intended to serve as a means of improving efficiency in the educational process (Jones and Knezek, 1993). Furthermore, it has been shown that the use of ICT in education can help improve memory retention, increase motivation and generally deepen understanding (Dede, 1998). ICT can also be used to promote collaborative learning, including role playing, group problem solving activities and articulated projects (Forcheri and Molfino, 2000). Generally, ICT is promoting new approaches to working and learning, and new ways of interacting (Balacheff, 1993). Consequently, the introduction of ICT into UK and US schools has provoked a host of new questions about the evolving nature of pedagogy.

Whether or not changes in pedagogy are contingent on trends and innovations, is a moot point. The question that should be asked, however, is: What will be the long term impact of ICT on the teaching and learning process? It is well documented that ICT changes the nature of motivation to learn (Forcheri and Molfino, 2000). Another important question is: What kind of skills will teachers need to acquire in order to be effective in an ICT based learning environment?

Key Questions

There is currently great debate about how teachers should adapt current teaching skills and practice to accommodate the introduction of ICT. These changes are comprehensive, embracing teaching methodology, assessment of learning, student tracking, communication, and evaluation. The distributed nature of ICT learning, and the impact it creates on both learners and teachers are crucial issues. The concept of shared resources, and shared working spaces, and particularly the notion of collaborative learning may be particularly difficult for some teachers to accept. Most critically, the question of the extent to which teachers relinquish control and let learners drive their own learning may create the greatest barrier to the adoption of ICT in the classroom.

The UK Experience

In the UK, the government is encouraging schools to embrace ICT as a fundamental part of the fabric of the curriculum. In 1998-1999, the UK government's funding for ICT development in schools, known as the National Grid for Learning (NGfL) finally began to have an impact. The funding provided by NGfL has resulted in a growth of connections to the Internet in primary schools. In March 1998 only 17 per cent of primary schools in the UK had Internet access. By March 1999 this had increased to 62 per cent and in the same period there was also an increase of Internet connectivity in secondary schools from 83 to 93 per cent (DfEE, 2000: 18). Many secondary schools and an increasing number of primary schools are now developing websites and announcing their presence in cyberspace. The use of web pages to post school news and homework assignments is soon to become common practice, as is the submission of work via e-mail from the child's home to the teacher's mailbox. This culture is already well established in many Australian and American schools.

This, however is just the first step in introducing ICT into schools. It is expected that all British teachers will be offered training in the use of ICT by 2002, and the UK Government has committed to spending 230 million to drive this training initiative forward (DfEE, 2000: 18). British teachers are also being supported in the purchase of a personal home computer, with a further fund of 20 million being offered. Teachers can expect to purchase a computer and modem at approximately half the retail price for exclusive home use. Through these initiatives it is envisaged that many more teachers will be encouraged to explore the possibilities of ICT, and increase their confidence in the use of computers. It is possible that entirely new working practices will evolve, where teachers work in a more collaborative manner, both with colleagues and with children. Finally, schools in some pilot areas are being encouraged to work together in clusters using ICT as a communication method. This approach enables schools to collaborate, sharing teaching and learning materials, which can be made available cost effectively to larger distributions of children. This method of working will also enabled key staff to provide on the job training to their colleagues from a centralised resource base (DfEE, 2000: 19).

What ICT Brings to the Classroom

Many are predicting that ICT will bring about several benefits to the learner and the teacher. These include sharing of resources and learning environments as well as the promotion of collaborative learning and a general move towards greater learner autonomy. I shall briefly discuss each of these benefits in turn, offering some examples.

  • Shared learning resources. One of the most striking examples of ICT in action in American schools is the apposite use of video systems to transmit television programmes and information throughout an entire school and even between schools in the same district. In the Faribault Schools in Minnesota, this integrated approach to the regional sharing of learning resources is enabling elementary and senior schools to minimise expenditure by concentrating time and effort into creating centralised services. Students and teachers enjoy the facility to share information wherever they are in the school. Television monitors provide details of timetables, projects and assessment, mealtime menus and a host of other useful up-to-the-minute information. There are also regular play-outs of short films and videos created by children, and some schools can use several channels for broadcast purposes.

  • Shared learning spaces. Networked computing facilities create a distributed environment where learners can share work spaces, communicate with each other and their teachers in text form, and access a wide variety of resources from internal and external databases via web based systems through the Internet. In Broad Clyst Primary School in East Devon, pupils as young as 8 years old use networked software to communicate with each other and their teacher, whilst 10 year olds converse with 'pen pals' in other countries using e-mail. Using these shared systems, pupils develop transferable skills such as literary construction, keyboard techniques and written communication skills, whilst simultaneously acquiring knowledge of other cultures, languages and traditions. Furthermore, children are able to make links between internal thinking and external social interaction via the keyboard, to improve their social and intellectual developments in the best constructivist tradition (Vygotsky, 1962). Children are quickly mastering the ability to communicate effectively using these new technologies because the experience has been made enjoyable in an unthreatening environment, and there are immediate perceived and actual benefits.

  • The promotion of collaborative learning. Reil (2000) argues that much of what we now see as individual learning will change to become collaborative in nature. Reasoning and intellectual development is embedded in the familiar social situations of everyday life (Donaldson, 1978) so the social context of learning has a great deal of importance. Collaborative learning is therefore taking an increasing profile in the curricula of many schools, with ICT playing a central role. Schools in the UK are already starting to use discussion lists, and other forms of computer mediated communication (CMC) to promote collaboration in a variety of learning tasks and group projects.

  • The move towards autonomous learning. At the same time, computers - and the power they bring to the student to access, manipulate, modify, store and retrieve information - will promote greater autonomy in learning. Inevitably, the use of ICT in the classroom will change the role of the learner, enabling children to exert more choice over how they approach study, requiring less direction from teachers. Students will be able to direct their own studies to a greater extent, with the teacher acting as a guide or moderator rather than as a director (Forsyth, 1996: 31). This facilitation will take on many facets and will also radically change the nature of the role of the teacher as we currently understand it. Consider for example the students at a local Devon school who are able to use a software based music laboratory in their lunch hours to write, record and produce their own music CDs. Microphones and keyboards have been purchased to encourage the creativity the children are discovering within these self-driven extra curricular activities. Minimal teacher management is required.

    Engineering the New Role of the Teacher

    Teachers have been polarised in their acceptance of the new technologies. Whilst some have enthusiastically integrated computers, CMC and the Internet into the classroom, other have been cautious in their welcome, and some have simply rejected the technologies. There is a level of justifiable cynicism based on previous experience of computer based applications such as CAL. Ironically, some enthusiasts have inadvertently damaged the reputation of ICT by poor classroom practice - using the technology for the sake of its novelty value, or failing to think through the issues before implementing the technology (Littlejohn, et al, 1999).

    With the inevitable proliferation of ICT in the classroom, the role of the teacher must change, and here are four key reasons why this must happen:

  • Firstly, the role of the teacher must change because ICT will cause certain teaching resources to become obsolete. For example, the use of overhead projectors and chalkboards may no longer be necessary if learners all have access to the same networked resource on which the teacher is presenting information. Furthermore, if students are distributed throughout several classrooms - which is becoming more common place - localised resources such as projectors and chalkboards become redundant and new electronic forms of distributed communication must be employed.

  • Secondly, ICT may also make some assessment methods redundant. Low level (factual) knowledge for example, has been traditionally tested by the use of multiple choice questions. In an ICT environment, on-line tests can easily be used which instantly provide the teacher with a wide range of information associated with the learner's score. Comparisons of previous scores and dates of assessment for example, will indicate a child's progress, and each student can be allocated an individual action plan data base stored in electronic format into which each successive test's results can be entered automatically.

  • Thirdly, the role of the teacher must change in the sense that it is no longer sufficient for teachers merely to impart content knowledge. It will however, be crucial for teachers to encourage critical thinking skills, promote information literacy, and nurture collaborative working practices to prepare children for a new world in which no job is guaranteed for life, and where people switch careers several times. One of the most ubiquitous forms of ICT - the Internet - gives access to an exponentially growing storehouse of information sources, almost unlimited networks of people and computers, and unprecedented learning and research opportunities. The Internet is a network of networks, providing opportunities for inquiry-based learning where teachers and students are able to access some of the world's largest information archives. Students and teachers are able to connect with each other, learn flexibly, and collaborate with others around the world. Generally speaking, geographical distance is no longer a barrier, and the age of the 'borderless' provision of education is upon us (THES, March 2000). Teaching strategies and resources can be shared through communication with other educators and may be integrated across the curriculum. The Internet provides a wealth of information to the extent that it is now impossible to comprehensively track the amount of information available. Unfortunately, misinformation and inaccuracies are similarly present in great numbers on the Internet so one of the new roles of the teacher within the electronic classroom will be to separate out quality information from misinformation. Identification, classification and authentication of electronic information sources will be critical new tasks for teachers.

  • Finally, teachers must begin to reappraise the methods by which they meet childrens' learning needs and match curricula to the requirements of human thought. The Internet can be an excellent way to adapt information to meet the characteristics of human information processing. Traditional methods of imparting knowledge, such as lectures, books and this conference paper, are characterised by a linear progression of information. Human minds are more adaptable than this, using non-linear strategies for problem solving, representation and the storage and retrieval of information (See for example Collins and Quillian, 1969; Collins and Loftus, 1975). Hypertext software enables teachers to provide their students with the non-linear means to match non-linear human thinking processes (Semenov, 2000: 29-30).

    In order to put these new roles into context, I shall offer some case studies of actual ICT based learning environments in elementary schools in the US.

    The US Experience

    As has been previously detailed, schools in the United States are investing in centralised media systems that will enable information to be broadcast to many schools at one time. The Faribault system in Minnesota involves 6 schools linked with a common cabled computer and media network. Students and teachers can view monitors showing a comprehensive range of information from lunch-time menus to global news bulletins. Students write, produce and present their own television programmes that are broadcast on the network. These are autonomous, but guided activities, with teachers on hand to provide technical or organisational help if it is required. In Minneapolis, an entire year of 90 students on one externally funded project were each loaned a laptop computer. Flexible ways of working and learning were observed, as students came to terms with any-time any-place learning. Teachers monitored activities, facilitating rather than directing, in order to encourage the most creative uses of the mobile technology. During the entire project only one laptop computer was lost.

    Networks of the new Apple MacIntosh iMac computers are also much in evidence in US schools, where children are instructed from the first grade (5 years) onwards. Large screen video projection facilities are used to guide the students, application sharing is used to take control of individual or grouped workstations to provide tutorials, and each student is given a personal e-mail address. Like their UK counterparts, American children as young as 7 years old are being encouraged to seek out, and maintain correspondence with overseas pen pals. Students as young as 5 years old are learning to use ICT as a regular resource to think and communicate, thereby enhancing the learning process. The role of the teacher here also, is to enable rather than to control learning activities.

    Trends and Alternative Futures

    So what of the future impact of information and communication technologies in the classroom? If it is difficult to predict future technological trends, it is almost impossible to forsee how these emerging technologies might be used in teaching and learning contexts. The following quotations bear witness to this problem:

  • 'One day every town in America will have its own telephone'. (U.S. Mayor, 1880).
  • 'Within the next decade the film will replace print'. (Thomas Edison, 1913).
  • 'I forsee a world market for maybe 5 computers'. (Thomas Watson, Chairman of IBM, 1943).*
  • 'I predict a time when computers will weigh no more than one and a half tons'. (Popular Mechanics, 1949).*
  • 'I forsee no reason for people to have a computer in their home'. (Ken Olson, President of Digital Equipment Corporation, 1977).*

    (* Quotes taken from Riel, 2000: 20-21)

    One thing we can be certain of is that ICT technologies will inevitably proliferate, possibly to the point where they become personal technologies, in a similar fashion to the Sony Walkman or the mobile telephone. Indeed, the third generation of mobile telephones, due for release this year, will connect via low orbit Iridium satellites, and will have the capability not only to connect from anywhere on the planet, but also to receive high quality video and gain quick access to the Internet. These technologies will truly usher in the age of 'any time, any place' learning. Below are a few of the emerging ICT applications with appropriate web sites for further reference.

    Wearable computer systems are already being beta-tested and several universities, (notably MIT in the United States) have established advanced research programmes to explore the many possibilities and applications, particularly in teaching and learning. The Internet, if bandwidth and costs will allow, will become even more ubiquitous than at present, providing vast, almost infinite quantities of learning material, stored around the world, and accessible direct into the classroom, workplace or home - in fact, anywhere. Worldboard systems will provide location specific information, working in conjunction with wearable wireless computer and communications technology. Tele-immersion through the use of virtual reality technology may eventually become a reality for some schools. In the United States, Xerox and other companies are racing to be the first to produce a usable form of digital paper. A booklet, with pages no more than twice as thick as a normal sheet of paper, will act as portable a series of wafer thin computer screens. The spine of the book acts as data storage, containing up to 100 medium sized text books, downloadable direct from the publisher via the Internet.

    Wireless, seamless, anytime, anywhere communication is happening, and we must be prepared for the changes this will bring to our classrooms, as well as to our society in general. The impact on compulsory education from these technologies will be not be slow in coming.


    Rapid changes in technology will ensure that ICT will proliferate in the classroom. It is predicted that there will be many benefits for both the learner and the teacher, including the promotion of shared working space and resources, better access to information, the promotion of collaborative learning and radical new ways of teaching and learning. ICT will also require a modification of the role of the teacher, who in addition to classroom teaching, will have other skills and responsibilities. Many will become specialists in the use of distributed learning techniques, the design and development of shared working spaces and resources, and virtual guides for students who use electronic media. Ultimately, the use of ICT will enhance the learning experiences for children, helping them to think and communicate creatively. ICT will also prepare our children for successful lives and careers in an increasingly technological world.


    Collins, A. M. and Loftus, E. F. (1975) A spreading activation theory of semantic processing. Psychological Review. 82, 407-28.
    Collins, A. M. and Quillian, M. R. (1969) Retrieval time from semantic memory. Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behaviour. 8, 244.
    Department for Education and Employment. (2000) Professional Development: Support for Teaching and Learning. February 2000. DfEE 0008/2000.
    Donaldson, M. (1978) Children's Minds. London: Fontana Collins.Balacheff, N. (1993) Artificial intelligence and real teaching. In C. Keitel and K. Ruthven (Eds.) Learning from computers: Mathematics education and technology. Berlin: Springer Verlag.
    Dede, C. (1998) Learning about teaching and vice versa. Paper presented at Conference of Society for Information Technology in Education. Washington D.C., USA.
    Forcheri, P. and Molfino, M. T. (2000) ICT as a tool for learning to learn. In Watson, D. M. and Downes, T. (Eds.) Communications and Networking in Education. Boston, MA: Kluwer Academic. pp 175-184.
    Forsyth, I. (1996) Teaching and Learning Materials and the Internet. London: Kogan Page.
    Jones, G. and Knezek, G. (1993) Non-commercial radio-satellite telecommunications: affrordable options for technology educators. Cited in S. Romi (2000) Distance Learning and Non-formal Education: Existing Trends and New Possibilities of Distance Learning Experiences. Educational Media International. 37 (1), 39-44.
    Littlejohn, A., Stefani, L. and Sclater, N. (1999) Promoting effective use of technology, pedagogy and the practicalities: a case study. Active Learning. 11, 27-30.
    Riel, M. (2000) The future of technology and education: Where are we heading? in: Watson, D. M. & Downes, T. (Eds.) Communications and Networking in Education. Boston, MA: Kluwer Academic Press. pp 9-24.
    Semenov, A. L. (2000) Technology in transforming education, in: Watson, D. M. & Downes, T. (Eds.) Communications and Networking in Education. Boston, MA: Kluwer Academic Press. pp 25-36.
    THES - The Times Higher Education Supplement. Act now, these are borderless times. March 31, 2000.
    Vygotsky, L. S. (1962) Thought and Language. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.