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ICT and learning theories: Preparing pre-service teachers for the classroom

Anthony J. Jones
Institute for Education, La Trobe University, Melbourne, Australia

Paper presented at the Annual Conference of the British Educational Research Association, University of Exeter, England, 12-14 September 2002


Too many teachers still lack confidence in using ICT and this is often made worse by a lack of appropriate software, unreliable computers and Internet connections, and insufficient technical support when things go wrong.

(OFSTED, 2002, p.15)

Effective use of ICT for teaching and learning in schools and universities is not widespread, even though the technology is now almost ubiquitous. Some teachers and lecturers have been able to integrate ICT use into their teaching, and more importantly engage students in making use of ICT as part of the process of learning. However there are still many barriers and impediments in the way of ICT becoming an integral part of teaching and learning. Some of these impediments will be discussed, with a special focus on beginning teachers and ICT. Throughout this paper, the term "beginning teachers" will be taken to include teachers who have recently entered the teaching professions as well as teacher education students in universities and other teacher education institutions.

The progress report from OFSTED (2002) quoted above contains lists of faults including:

Although these comments are negative, they provide information that is crucial to those responsible for designing and implementing teacher education programs that aim to change the current state of educational use of ICT. It must also be noted that the report contains many positive examples of effective use of ICT by schools and individual teachers.

Studies from several countries suggest that in general teacher education has not been able to keep up with the pace and scope of technological change in schools and society. Such studies have been reported from Australia (Ramsay, 2000), the UK (McKinsey, 1997), and the USA (CEO Forum, 1999). In the Australian state of Victoria, stated government policy is that both primary and secondary schools should aim for a ratio of 1 computer used for teaching and/or learning for every 4 students. The designated curriculum states that ICT use should be integrated into all curriculum areas and not be taught as a separate subject until middle secondary school. While schools work towards achieving these goals, there are no equivalent statements or aims for teacher education.

Table 1. Teacher computer use for student teaching/learning (percentages).

Amount of computer use over 4 weeks


Less than weekly







Analysis of survey data collected in 2001 from 46 primary school classrooms in metropolitan Melbourne over a four week period, indicated a very low level of ICT use (Jones, 2002). Every classroom surveyed had access to computers, but their use could best be described as being occasional. The data in Table 1 indicates that more than 90% of the supervising teachers in the survey used their classroom computers with students once per week or less over a four week teaching practicum.

Several large focus group interviews were conducted with volunteers from among the teacher education students when they returned from the teaching round. At one stage of each interview the seven descriptors from the Levels of Use (LoU) model (Hall et al.,1975) were introduced, and participants were asked to categorise their supervising teacher. The descriptors were to be related to classroom use of computers, and ranged from non-user through orientation, preparation, mechanical, routine, refinement to integration. A brief explanation was provided for each descriptor. There are many reasons why this was a flawed experiment, but the results were interesting if not necessarily creditable. Surprisingly, given the low level of use indicated in Table 1, none of the participants rated their supervisor as a non-user. Most were at the preparation level, because they had talked to the student teacher about what they were planning to do and when they were going to start.

A concern about change is one reason proposed for teachers not rushing to adopt ICT in their teaching. Hodas (1993, p.1) has noted that because technology is never neutral, introducing ICT into teaching has both advantages and disadvantages for teachers and learners. Many teachers, both school and university, have tried to implement ICT by transferring parts of what they previously did without technology into some form of electronic text. Whatever the format used, for example word processing, presentation or PDF files on CD or the WWW, there has been a minimum of change. Watson notes

IT is not only perceived as a catalyst for change, but also change in teaching style, change in learning approaches, and change in access to information. Yet research indicates that teachers are both threatened by change, and conversely not impressed by change that appears to focus on what the technology can do rather than on learning. (Watson, 2001 p.252)

She goes on to argue that the reason for many of the failures in educational uses of ICT relate to an over emphasis on the technology to the detriment of the pedagogy. Papert (1980) noted the problem of technocentrism and has continued to argue that it is still a major issue in all levels of education.

Beginning a career in teaching

Why do graduates enrol in pre-service teacher education courses? Beginning teacher education students give many reasons including teaching being a people-centred profession, almost certain employment [at the moment], longer holidays than most jobs, and for a one-year course it is usually possible to do some part-time work. Many of these beginning teacher education students have idealistic views about education in general, and teaching in particular. There is commonly held belief that they will be able to change teaching and learning to fit in with their idealistic view.

Several years ago we asked teacher education students, on the first day of their course, to make a sketch of what they anticipated they would do on a teaching round. They were asked to represent themselves and some students in a learning environment. Not surprisingly there was a great diversity among the sketches. However there appeared to be one obvious difference between the sketches produced by prospective secondary teachers and prospective primary teachers. Almost all the primary teacher education students showed themselves among, or at least next to, children. In general this appeared to be on the floor or at tables arranged in a circle around the teacher. In contrast, the majority of secondary students drew themselves as a teacher in front of students sitting in rows. Sometimes the teacher was doing something, for example using scientific apparatus or writing on the board.

Both sets of sketches showed variations of teacher-centred classrooms. In all cases the teacher was the centre of attention. This is the mental image of classroom practice most beginning teachers bring to their studies. Both sets of sketches also showed something about perceptions of teacher-student interaction. Apart from the fact that there was definitely interaction occurring, it was not possible to categorise the primary perceptions. However the secondary teachers drew traditional classrooms with the teacher in control and appearing to be in transmission mode. This correlates with comments from the two groups. When asked, "What is the major strength of a successful teacher?" secondary students tended to focus on having a sound knowledge of the subjects they would be teaching. They claimed teaching was about the transfer of knowledge that they as teachers possess, to students.

In many years of questioning, surveying, and asking students to role-play or sketch what they anticipate, no one has ever included a computer or any ICT. Indeed it is a major shock to many students to discover that they have to attend compulsory ICT classes and workshops. They do not know, and sometimes do not believe, that the major employer of teachers in the state has made it mandatory for every graduating teacher to undertake a series of subjects that will prepare them to use a range of ICT skills and applications for both teaching and non-teaching purposes.

The OFSTED report quoted at the beginning of this paper appears to contain some contradictory statements. In contrast to the quotation used earlier, consider the following:

There is now an unprecedented willingness in the teaching profession to embrace ICT. Initial teacher training has provided a strong emphasis on the use of ICT across the curriculum. As a result, newly qualified teachers accept ICT as an integral part of their professional life, as do many of their more experienced colleagues. (OFSTED, 2002 p.4).

Pre-service teacher education courses

If there is some divergence of opinion in official reports, there is even more among staff in teacher education institutions. In Australia over the past decade we have witnessed the forcible incorporation of teacher training colleges into universities. This is especially true for primary teacher education, where the traditional model has been an undergraduate vocational teacher training course. A complicating factor is that teacher accreditation is a state issue, and so expectations and curricula differ according to geographic location.

The latest formal guidelines relating to ICT in teacher education courses in Victoria (currently under revision) consist of eight bullet points (SCTP, 1999). The points are vague rather than specific, and in 2002 seem inadequate. These points relate to what is expected of graduates of all teacher education courses, and include:

demonstrate a developing competence and confidence in the use of a range of learning technologies in the classroom. Beginning teachers need not be expert in all aspects of learning technologies, they are however expected to be computer literate and proficiency is desirable in:

* using basic computer applications, including word processing, data base and spread sheet packages
* using desktop publishing and presentation software
* using multi-media and interactive presentations
* using communication technologies including the world wide web and electronic mail
* using courseware specific to particular KLAs.

demonstrate an awareness of a range of learning technology resources and how they can be integrated constructively and creatively with other resources to produce a challenging and rigorous curriculum

create a classroom environment in which learning technologies are an integral component (SCTP, 1999 p.8)

These points are guidelines that indicate areas that will be considered when pre-service teacher education course are evaluated by the state Department of Education and Training. Otherwise there are no procedures in place to assist teacher educators develop appropriate ICT related courses. The guidelines mention integration into all curriculum areas, and indeed this is an aim clearly stated in curriculum documents for ICT in the primary grades. Pre-service teacher education courses then need to ensure students acquire basic ICT skills, as well as providing examples, demonstrations and activities that illustrate exemplary classroom use of ICT across the curriculum.

For most teacher education students, both primary and secondary, ICT in education units are compulsory. At La Trobe and Melbourne universities the development of these units is informed by both research and school practice. It has been noted earlier that use of ICT in classrooms is spasmodic, meaning that any examples of effective classroom ICT use for learning presented to students will not necessarily be something that students will encounter during teaching practice. The same is obviously going to be true of much of the recently reported research.

A pre-service teacher education course should focus on at least the following aspects of ICT use:

1. personal skills that link to professional use;
2. organisational and administration use;
3. applications and techniques for effective teaching and learning.

There is a degree of hierarchy within these three aspects, as many studies have shown that if teachers are not able or willing to use ICT for personal purposes, they will not use it for teaching and learning in their classrooms. Once teachers have basic skills they can be expected to perform administrative or organisational tasks such as word processing reports, keeping electronic rolls, producing teaching materials, and reading and responding to e-mail messages from their employer. However even teachers who can accomplish these things do not necessarily believe they are ready to use ICT for teaching and learning.

In addition to having a range of ICT related experiences, beginning teacher also need to be introduced theories and concepts that assist them to understand why certain things occur in the interaction between teacher and learner. While beginning teachers might focus more on classroom management and other 'survival' skills, as they spend more time in the classroom they discover the need for theory to exist alongside practice.

Most classroom teachers are interested to know what and how their students learn. In pre-service teacher education programs students study philosophical and psychological issues relating to knowledge and learning. In general none of these theories and the educational issues they raise are discussed by students in the context of learning technologies in the classroom. Over the three decades computers have been entering classrooms, educational theories have moved from behaviourism to cognitivism and then to constructivism. Underlying many of the theories is the concept of learners as individuals who have specific personal needs while at the same time requiring social contact with peers and others.

In much of his work Papert (1980, 1993) argued for the dual concepts of exploratory learning together with appropriate computer software and of learners being epistemologists, that is being aware of their personal learning preferences and idiosyncrasies. Reports arising from the early Logo research encouraged teachers to explore a wide range of interactions between themselves, their students, and computers. Piagetian theories of developmental stages in children, and constructivism have been major influences on teachers using Logo and other exploratory or conjectural software. Often the alternative educational pathways sought by these teachers and researchers have led to learning environments that are more informal than traditional classrooms. Developing ICT applications for classroom use has given teachers a motive for focusing on issues such as whether children are novice learners, developing adults who just perform less ably than adults, or effective learners who have informally learned a natural language, a collection of motor and social skills, and a range of concepts about the world around them.

Wolf writes that the core of Piagetian theories of cognitive development is a view of knowledge constructed through interaction (Wolf, 1988 p.203). There are two aspects of Piagetian interaction. The first relates to domain knowledge, and concerns the acquisition of knowledge through a simultaneous combination of actions and experiments with concrete materials and thinking about those materials. The other aspect of Piagetian interaction is characterised by its social nature. It arises from a trading of thoughts, feelings and strategies between groups of learners, between teachers and learners, and through a process of self reflection. Learning in a computer-based medium requires both "provocative encounters" with the basic structure of particular knowledge (domain knowledge), and equally stimulating encounters with the thoughts of others (social interchanges).

For many years teachers have used parts of Bloom's Taxonomy of Educational Objectives as a guide to asking questions that are cognitively challenging. Recently the taxonomy has been revised in the light of current educational thinking. Pohl (2000) is one of many educators who have applied the revised taxonomy to educational uses of ICT. Beginning teachers have always had trouble asking questions and setting tasks at appropriate levels for students. In Australia, when prospective teachers enter a pre-service course they have usually just completed an undergraduate degree. Many of the questions they ask on their first teaching round are far too difficult for students. It appears that as recent graduates the beginning teachers are still influenced by the academic expectations and practices of their university studies, and they have difficulty thinking at the level of a child or adolescent who might have limited knowledge of the topic.

A common and related issue among both beginning and experienced teachers, is that of mostly asking questions that require only a previously learned response - in Bloom's terms a recall or remembering question. Similarly, when teachers demonstrate a process on the board and then set tasks that are almost identical, students only need to remember or copy what was demonstrated. An equivalent level of thinking is required when students are asked to use computers to make copies of text, data, or diagrams provided by teacher or textbook.

Gardner's theory of multiple intelligences is used in many schools to cater for intellectual areas of strength and to bolster any less developed areas. By allowing students to use content-free software (for example word processors, spreadsheets, draw and paint programs, e-mail, HyperStudio, MicroWorlds, Inspiration, PowerPoint) teachers can develop activities to enrich many of the multiple intelligences. However some of the intelligences, such as musical and bodily-kinesthetic, might require some additional hardware software for learners who have skills in these areas.

Problem solving strategies and systematic methods for thinking are also used in primary and secondary schools. Many schools make effective use of models such as De Bono's "thinking hats" and "lateral thinking", and have integrated them into classroom ICT use. In a technology context, all of the software types mentioned offer opportunities for problem solving. Some are better than others in specific subject areas, for example spreadsheets and MicroWorlds have many applications in mathematics classes.

As noted previously, Watson (2001) has urged "pedagogy before technology" and the CEO Forum (1999) and other recent reports on teacher education have identified the context of ICT to be a major issue. In the past there has been an over-emphasis on training teacher education students to develop proficiency in a range of technical skills. It is then assumed that because they are technically competent with ICT, they will be able to use ICT in their teaching as well as use it to enable their students to learn more effectively. This has not turned out to be the case.

How can pre-service teacher education providers improve the situation that has been described? First, all staff involved in teacher education need to be cognisant of the need for change to current practices, and of recommendations from many of the reports referred to in this paper. "How and why would this topic/software/activity be used in school classrooms?" should the theme for ICT classes and practical workshops.

At La Trobe University, primary teacher education students commence the year by experiencing language activities that also introduce or reinforce concepts of word processing. The language activities presented to the students are linked to stated learning outcomes from both the language and technology curriculum documents. From their education as teachers, students are shown that the thrust for using ICT comes from the school curriculum in an area other than technology. The oft repeated mantra used with these students is "Use technology only when and where it is appropriate." Working with the assistance of tutors from subject areas such as language, science, mathematics, and SOSE (Studies of Society and the Environment), the students are given practice in developing lessons, and later units of work, that might or might not include some aspect of technology. Some of these are submitted for assessment, and they are critiqued on the inclusion or exclusion of aspects of ICT.

ICT related topics are introduced to students through the school curriculum. For example the classes on multimedia applications begin by looking at traditional school project work in social studies. This is then compared to samples of multimedia projects developed by children in schools using MicroWorlds and HyperStudio. The student teachers are asked to role-play a classroom teacher while they assess both types of project, and determine what the projects show about how much children have learned. Student teachers then practise developing a multimedia project, usually in pairs because this is classroom practice in local schools, and at the same time acquiring skills and knowledge in the software package they have chosen to use.

In a similar manner, spreadsheets are introduced through learning outcomes from the science curriculum that involve collecting and analysing data relating to patterns in weather, time, plant growth, etc. The spreadsheet concepts are then linked to mathematics outcomes that require students to pose a question, collect response data, analyse and interpret the data, and make a visual and written representation of what they done.

WebQuests are used as a vehicle for demonstrating an effective and safe way of making use of resources available on the World Wide Web. Issues arising from the rationale behind WebQuests for schools (Dodge, 1997) are discussed in the light of what students have experienced in previous classes, and what they observed while on teaching practice. Using WebQuests in the classroom is the major focus of this discussion, not only in relation to class organisation and management in an environment with 30 children and 4 computers, but also the role of children as both users and authors. Later the teacher education students work in small collaborative groups to develop a WebQuest that integrates material from at least three of the school curriculum areas.

Concluding remarks

There are many reasons why classroom teachers in subjects other than IT are not making effective use of the learning technologies currently available in schools. Many of these causes are not yet clearly understood. This is true in both primary and secondary schools, and raises many issues, including concerns about the cost-effectiveness of the large investment in hardware and software, and what professional development is necessary for teachers. In this paper one aspect of the latter issue has been examined in the context of beginning teachers.

By now we might expect that new entrants into pre-service teacher education will have had considerable experience with ICT during their schooling and their university studies. However the quality and scope of those experiences differ greatly, but it does mean that there will be some teachers entering the profession who have been aware of, and have used, ICT for up to a decade and a half.

Although the focus in this paper has been on pre-service teacher education, similar concepts and approaches can be applied to professional development for current teachers. Of course school and system administrators have to be aware that no matter how high the level of competence and confidence of teachers, ICT will never be integrated into normal classroom practice until the technology is available and accessible where teachers teach. We are misusing resources and have a long way to go while-ever teachers have to make bookings weeks ahead, then find and connect together video-projectors, computers, and software prior to teaching a lesson.


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This document was added to the Education-line database on 20 February 2003