The TRICOM Project: an evaluation of the use of communications technology in initial teacher education
The Teachers, Resources and Information through Communications project (TRICOM) was set up and piloted between the Universities of Warwick, East Anglia (UEA) and Hull in 1997. The project aimed to create an electronic network using the new FirstClass server based at Warwick with a total of eighteen secondary schools from the three Universities' initial teacher training partnerships. In support of this project RM, one of the leading companies providing computers and ICT services to schools, agreed to supply each school and the three Universities with free connection to Internet for Learning for one year with access to Living Library, and a modem or cash equivalent.
A characteristic of initial teacher training courses in the UK is that it is relatively highly dispersed for large proportions of the teaching year. Students spend approximately 12 weeks out of a 36 week Postgraduate Certificate in Education course (PGCE) in the University; the rest of their time is spent in schools. The notion of 'partnership' is very much at the heart of teacher education rhetoric, with school mentors involved in the planning of courses and giving support to students in schools. However contact with students on block teaching placements can be problematic as the potential for their links with the University can become difficult and patchy, particularly for those students who are based in schools at some distance from the University . To this end the introduction of electronic communications can develop the partnership between schools and Universities; it can enable students to maintain regular contact with their peers and their tutors; and offer support, advice and teaching ideas which complement the support students receive from school mentors and other school staff.
There would seem to be compelling reasons why an electronic network would be both helpful and desirable. It was with some optimism that we began to make arrangements for the implementation of the network in our respective partnerships.
Other models of electronic networks in initial teacher education
There are a handful of UK institutions using this form of communication (Selinger, 1996, 1997; TTA, in press). There are also some in Australia, Canada the USA and continental Europe (e.g. Beals. 1991; Bonk and Reynolds, 1997; Merseth, 1992; Pearson, 1999; Trentin, 1994) which are well documented. Looking at these studies suggests there is strong evidence to suggest that there are sound and valid arguments for setting up electronic networks. Models of support vary from site to site but most use web pages to provide up to date information and resources that can be accessed from schools, students' homes or the teacher training institution, and electronic discussion forums or email. Benefits students derive from online discussion include:
Some of the networks were set up in a distance learning courses because students are more isolated than in a traditional teacher training course, since they have less face to face contact with the teacher training institution and peers (e.g.Selinger, 1996). One of the reasons for setting up the project was because we wanted to see if the successes experienced in distance learning mode could be replicated in a traditional teacher training model.
Changes to the scope of the project
When we initially set up this project there were two central research questions we wished to address:
However, soon after starting the project it became apparent that it would not be possible to explore these research questions due to the range of issues discussed later in this article. Therefore the scope of this paper is not to discuss these original research question but to evaluate the problems encountered in getting students and teachers to use the FirstClass software and the efforts which have been made over the past few years to try to overcome them.
The first year of the TRICOM project
The conferences were set up so that there was a common area in which students could post messages to subject specific conferences or join a general discussion with students, mentors and tutors based at any of the institutions; and there were separate areas set up for each institution so that general partnership specific issues could be discussed. Each university nominated six partnership schools for the pilot project.
Because of the changing roles of personnel and some technical problems, the project failed to get off the ground in Hull, however Warwick and UEA have continued to develop the project. In 1997 very few schools had Internet connections, and when they existed it was often through a modem linked to one machine either in the library, in a computer laboratory or very occasionally in the staff room (Selinger et al.,1998).
The Warwick experience
IT co-ordinators and professional mentors, with responsibility for all the students on placement in the six pilot schools in the Warwick partnership were invited to an initial meeting. At least one PGCE IT student had been placed in each of the schools in order to support the installation and training of mentors in using FirstClass. Each schools indicated their enthusiasm and support for the project, and with their IT student's help set up the software on at least one machine. All the students placed at the school were invited to a meeting to be shown how to use FirstClass and the potential for communication and collaboration was discussed. However, in the event, it was mainly IT students who made use of the conferencing facility. University tutors were briefed and shown how to access and use the system. Students were encouraged to show their mentors how to use FirstClass and briefing documents and instructions about how to use FirstClass were sent into the schools. Where possible it was put onto tutors' personal machines, but this caused some problems as machines were old and had insufficient memory. Other schools, not amongst the six pilot schools, were invited to become involved and some took it up, but again this was mainly in the schools where there were IT students who could install the software and who were enthusiastic enough to use it. However all students were registered on FirstClass and were invited to use it whether it was in their school or not. There was a problem in that many of the schools only took students on the first of two placements, so in reality there was little continuity over the year, although a handful of students from pilot schools did request to use FirstClass in one of the non-pilot schools on their second placement.
Use of FirstClass was patchy, but there was some limited successes. The IT students in particular used the system because they had easy access to the technology in the computer rooms where they were based for much of their teaching. Some students had Internet access at home and were able to access of FirstClass through modem access on a local number or through their Internet service provider. Where the subject tutor from the University was keen to make FirstClass a way of keeping in touch with students, there was some considerable use. Very few mentors used it with the exception of two or three IT mentors.
The UEA experience
At UEA we decided to work with only six partnership schools and arrange for each of them to be connected to the FirstClass server in Warwick. Each school agreed to provide a computer in a staff only area in return for a free modem, a free licence for the FirstClass software for all staff involved and a contribution towards the call costs. We concentrated our efforts in only six schools since we felt it was the most manageable approach to achieve our main aim of getting both school staff and students to use the system. However, the level of use within these six schools over the year was very small indeed.
Students at UEA have two school placements during the year, the first from October until January and the second starting in February and lasting until the end of the course in July. Unfortunately none of the six schools were able establish a working connection during the first placement. During the second placement four of the schools established their connection towards the end of the placement, one school was connected briefly but a complete system failure occurred and they did not re-establish their connection and the final school never established contact with the server due to a combination of technical and logistical problems. Where connection was established it was only one or two students or mentors who were particularly interested in communicating by e-mail who used the system at all. However, due to the low level of message activity even these enthusiasts soon stopped sending messages.
Looking back there are a number of reasons why the use of the system never got off the ground, the most obvious of which were a series of technical and logistical problems. We had clearly underestimated the problems associated with getting a computer in the right place, with a modem which works and successfully downloading and configuring the software. With no technical support and with everyone involved very busy with lots of other priorities, even the smallest problems tended to stall progress. For example when visiting schools it became clear that even though help sheets had been distributed some schools were not able to type in the appropriate set-up information. Others had difficulty in deciding on a suitable location for the computer. In informal discussions, some students reported that they lacked the confidence to use e-mail for the first time and there were always many other priorities which seemed more pressing. Any initial enthusiasm, particularly from some students, soon ebbed away, particularly as they were fully occupied in coping with the demands of the PGCE course.
One of the intended research questions related to problems of access. Although the level of use was never a problem, it is hard to see how a number of staff and students could make effective use of a single computer based in a staff room, let alone in a computer room. When during a busy school day would staff and students have chance to use the system? Related to this difficulty is what might be called the ‘chicken and egg problem’. If there are a limited number of people using the system very few messages are posted in the conference areas. This situation does not encourage new users to send messages which results in a downward spiral with fewer people bothering to log-on to the system.
Lessons learnt from the pilot project
Looking back on the first year’s experiences there were a number of issues which emerged. Firstly we concluded that it was sensible to concentrate initially on getting students rather than school staff to use the system. They are embarking on a new career and have yet to establish set ways of working. They also have the most to gain by communicating with others to support their training. However, we felt that there also needs to be some active encouragement before students will use the system. We identified the involvement of university curriculum tutors as a key factor.
Access was a huge issue. The problem of access based around single machines in partnership schools was obviously a significant barrier. Often the access point was in the computer room which was the domain of the IT staff and other staff often felt intimidated or unsure about their access. It was very important to get students using FirstClass as soon as they entered the University. Once they had established themselves on the University proprietary system, however unwieldy, they did not want to change. FirstClass enables email and conferencing to be available on the desk top and this interface can encourage students to become involved in discussions since they are enticed by the red flags that denoted a message posted in a conference folder. We found that an increasing number of students had Internet access at home, so that it seemed sensible to encourage them to download the FirstClass software onto their home computers.
University tutors took time to look into the pros and cons of using FirstClass and only started to use it towards the end of the year. This was not helped by the difficulties old computers presented. There was little discussion about the use of the Internet for Learning site or Living Library, and students did not share resources. The core groups in the Warwick only area were not used at all. There were relatively few postings in the subject conference and the discussion that took place was usually social in nature and there were rarely postings about classroom practice.
We concluded that until we have been successful in establishing a large user base there is no point is trying to investigate specific research questions.
At UEA we now register every student on FirstClass via their university curriculum sessions, early in the course. By setting up activities during the taught sessions at the university before the students move on to block school placements, we are trying to get them hooked on communicating via FirstClass at an early stage.
To encourage this process at UEA we have set up a number of ‘in-house’ training sessions to increase the university staff’s confidence and competence in using FirstClass. We are aiming to share ideas and experiences aimed at setting up activities for PGCE students. This is a slow process but there are some good examples for other staff to follow. For example during last year the History students held an on-line discussion about the causes of the Second World War and the Geography students ran an on-line simulation about the development of a third world country. This involved groups of Year 11 pupils role-playing and communicating via FirstClass.
It is apparent that there will not be a dramatic transformation to large scale use of e-mail as the routine means of communication. However, the advantages stated earlier still hold good. Starting the third year we still feel that an initial focus on achieving a high level of student use is the way forward. However, we have found that even university staff who are very committed to using FirstClass still need to make a conscious effort to use it routinely in their teaching. We will experiment with making some material only accessible via FirstClass but the difficulty is that this will be unfair for those who live a long way from the UEA campus and do not have Internet access at home. However, many schools now have networked Internet access, so FirstClass is available from more machines. We feel that the key is to establish a large base of students who regularly use FirstClass from home. Once this is done we intend to encourage those school staff with Internet access at home to use the system too.
All students at Warwick are now introduced to FirstClass within 10 days of arriving at the institution so encouraging its use as a default e-mail client. FirstClass is available from an Internet browser as well as from client software and the difference between the two have greatly reduced. This is significant since nearly all schools are now networked with Internet access available on many machines. In addition, a technician has been appointed on a temporary basis to install the client software in all schools in the Warwick partnership; to show professional mentors how to use it; and to discuss the way it will be used by students and administrators. The partnership office sees the potential of FirstClass for making closer and easier contact with the schools and a conduit for sending materials related to student training and for the possibilities for sending and receiving paperwork related to students progress and achievement. Subject tutors are more confident in their own use of the system and have developed moderation techniques; such example offering support and ideas to students on placement, and initiating discussions about topical issues. Most subject conferences are used by students and tutors and the content of discussions has moved increasingly to practice related issues. The next stage is to encourage mentors online so that the true aims of the electronic partnership can be achieve - bringing theory and practice together and making the school/university link seamless.
Moving forward: finding solutions
Perhaps the most fundamental problem we encountered was that we were trying to set up a new mode of working for busy staff and students. If people have managed to cope with the demands of professional life without using electronic communications and they are very busy, there needs to be considerable immediate benefits to encourage them to make time for this new method of collaborating. It was clear that for most of those involved other pressures relegated the use of FirstClass to a very low level of priority. Where students did find the communication network valuable they have continued to use it, and there are small number of Warwick students who are into their second year of teaching who still use a newly qualified teacher conference within FirstClass to stay in touch. They discuss issues, share concerns and seek out help in their teaching. One pair of students collaborated on A-level teaching, sharing resources and ideas. However, more generally, the inability to find a purpose to use technology may be one of the major obstacles to uptake of ICT in education in general.
It has taken two years to feel that the project is finally lifting off. The political climate in which Internet is seen as an imperative in schools has helped to some extent in that access is easier from school and from home, but University tutors are also beginning to realise the potential of being able to communicate easily with students. Just on the pragmatic side, the setting up of school visits has been made easier and tutors can gauge the urgency of a visit from messages that are posted. Emails to the student and a phone call to the school mentor can then ensue, and small issues can be picked up before they become large ones.
Using electronic communications involves working in a different way. It takes time to see the possible benefits and to make using the system part of the school or University routine. Many academics have adapted to email, and teachers are beginning to follow suit as their access to it becomes easier. However, the move to communicating in an open forum, such as an email conference, is a larger step than generally appreciated (Pearson and Selinger, 1999).