ICT as Political Action

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Self-instructional guides Site logo

two students working at computerFirst faltering steps

The first project that I undertook in relation to the teaching of ICT has been described previously (O’Neill 1996). Giving an account of this work again might appear repetitive but examining the development of my own thinking and my own practice is a key element of the thesis. The following section shows my early dissatisfaction with my practice and my attempts to bring it into line with my values. I experienced disillusionment with trying to teach basic ICT skills to my students on a whole class basis. I set about trying to find a way of enabling greater autonomy for my students. The first stage in that work was developing a set of course materials for teaching basic skills. In my report of the work I wrote the following:

"At this point the content of computer courses taught included computer familiarisation, keyboard skills, programming, word processing, spreadsheets, databases, graphics, desktop publishing and CAD. An ongoing difficulty with teaching this material is the lack of a methodology, an approach to teaching the material. Frequently, in the typical computer class, there is a wide range of ability and an even wider range of experience. Some students have computers at home and are very capable, whereas some have never touched a computer and have no interest. In addition to this all students have their own individual difficulties. I found my classes were not progressing. As one student rushed ahead, another lagged behind. Trying to keep them together was impossible. The more computer literate students were getting bored and misbehaving. The others were getting frustrated. I was getting over stretched and annoyed. I decided that a text book was the answer. But no available textbook was specific enough to our computer system, and this approach did not work either. There were still too many questions and loose ends. I decided it was time to produce my own materials" (O’Neill 1996).

Within this quotation the most telling sentence is ‘Trying to keep them together was impossible.’ At that point I was treating the students as a class rather than a group of individuals. In terms of pedagogy my approach was on ‘herding a group’ rather than meeting the needs of individuals. In terms of ICT my focus was rather technicist focusing on ICT skills rather than education for freedom. Since writing my initial comments on this work I have encountered a metaphor gaining currency in management literature – the idea of ‘herding cats’ (Bennis 1998; Crocke et al. 1999; Dawson and Jones n.d.; George and Krajewski 2001; Lott 2006; Stuart 2006). The idea is rooted in an advertising video produced by software services company, EDS, for the 2000 Super Bowl. The advertisement suggested that trying to organize companies is like herding cats – one moment they are sitting still, next they have darted away; if you chase them one way, they run the other. While presented attractively and amusingly by EDS the underlying theme is of uncertainty and unpredictability within organisations. However, it seems to me that implementing the ‘right’ technologies and streamlining business processes are essential ingredients to produce organisational change, but it is not organisations that change, it is people. While the technical components of change are well understood, mechanised and standardised it is the human element that is critical to success and is least understood (Dawson and Jones n.d). Interestingly, the advertisement suggests that EDS believe that they have the solutions. EDS’s advertisement reflects the dominant themes in management literature which are that management is about organising people.

My classroom experience suggests that in practical terms attempts at herding cats are doomed to failure. From my practice I have come to see the futility of trying to organise people, and find when people are removed from controlling influences they are capable of organising themselves. My own insight is that, contrary to conventional wisdom, people resist change only when it makes them feel out of control. They will resist if change is foisted on them without their consent (Dawson and Jones n.d).

Despite not having reached these insights into my practice and into dominant practices at the time the quotation above shows my early frustration with a teacher-centric approach and my first attempts to move toward a more learner centred approach. While the self-instructional guides were prescriptive I see this as my first tentative steps toward moving away from an authoritarian approach in my classroom and allowing my students to exercise some autonomy over their own learning. In my reflections on this work I indicated that I was having difficulties with the conflict between my values and my practice. I would like to take this thinking a step further at this time and by that means show how my learning has developed.

My frustration with trying to teach ICT didactically led me to produce my self-instructional notes. On the face of it you could say that the self-instructional notes are restrictive in that they lead students though pre-determined exercises where the ‘successful’ outcome for all students will be the same. But it is possible to see them as enabling. If I were to use the same whole-class approach in teaching the computer class as I tended to follow in my science classes I might require that all students do the same thing at the same time so we can all proceed together as a group. Using the self-instructional guides promoted a different approach because they allowed different students to proceed at different rates. This is an attempt at person-centred work. It is still prescriptive but it is allowing the learner to move along at his own pace. I am facilitating the students’ learning by providing resources and materials that they can use as they wish. This is moving away from a classroom situation where one half is bored and irritated because the class is moving too slowly for them and the other half of the class is frustrated because things are moving too quickly for them. Providing the self instructional guides is helping me to overcome inequity by allowing all students to work at their own pace and leaves the teacher free to support whichever students needs support. In this way students are not being treated equally but equitably. I appreciate that allowing students to work at their own pace can allow the advantaged to become more advantaged. But this practice allows the teacher to support most those who need most support and this promotes equity rather than equality (Secada 1989: 68-88).

Throughout the development of resource materials there is a process of moving me, as teacher, from looking after mundane activities, what Arendt (1958) might call labour, and focusing instead on more life-affirming processes which could be considered action. The development of a body of materials is part of an ongoing process of refining my own ability to resource students’ learning and to remove the constraints that are obstacles to students’ learning. This is a step toward the web of enablement where wide ranging influences act in concert to remove obstacles to learning.

In the ICT class and the Technology class, although the content of the class is prescriptive, students are exercising greater autonomy than previously. The activities represent my first attempts to support students’ autonomy. The activities could be seen in Arnstein’s terms as ‘delegated power’ which is close to the top of the ladder of participation (Arnstein 1969). As I engaged in changing the role of students and my own role as teacher I was reconceptualising teaching within a co-operative model. At the same time I was reconceptualising my own identity not as an authoritarian figure but as a co-worker with my students and colleagues. Interestingly the shift from authoritarianism did not reduce my authority within the classroom but in many respects enhanced it. In the case of the equipment manager, instead of coming to me for punishments, he was coming to me for advice and with ideas on how better to organise equipment.

Arnstein, S. R. (1969). ‘ A Ladder of Citizen Participation’ in Journal of the American Institute of Planners, 35(4) 216-224. Retrieved 17 February 2006 from http: //lithgow-schmidt.dk/sherry-arnstein/ladder-of-citizen-participation.pdf

Evidence of my own learning in the development of self-instructional guides.

The attached self-instructional guides were developed over many years. The earliest example provided here goes back to 1988. Later versions were developed throughout the 1990s and into the 21st millennium.
Examining versions form different dates an improvement in the quality of the presentation reflects my increasing understanding of what learners need to help them learn. it can be seen that the layout improves in the later versions. graphics are added to help visual learners identify what is being asked of them more easily.

Word and Multiplan notes 1988

Works word processor guide 1991
Works spreadsheet guide 1991
Works database guide 1991

Word for Windows guide 1997
Exchange guide 1997

Guide to the Internet for Parents 2002


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