Where do we go from here?

Dr Tony Lyons
First published in MAPE Magazine 3 Summer Term 2000

The role of the IT co-ordinator is not to be envied. It is not a role for the faint hearted nor is it a position for anyone without heaps of patience and time . . . at least, this seems to be the case in many schools today. The IT co-ordinator has the tough role of guiding through curriculum changes as well as full-time teaching commitments and having to weave through the continually moving goal posts of other curricular areas.

Some will point out that other core curriculum co-ordinators have had a challenging time of late. And, okay, the IT co-ordinator has the added bit of trying to sort out the NOF training and to encourage their colleagues to take the opportunities it offers seriously. But what makes the role of the IT co-ordinator different is not the development of the curriculum nor is it the NOF training: it is the additional problem of the hardware they have to face.
A computer network is a Holy Grail before it arrives in the school. When it arrives, and is up and running smoothly, it is a great situation with a great deal of potential. But when the messages appear on the screen, 'illegal operation . . .', 'hard drive not found', 'system error' or '. . . not found' or when a machine freezes, or a printer isn't accessible from a particular machine . . . that is when the IT co-ordinator becomes only too aware that this is a complex new world. Even in schools where there is no network, an increased number of machines alongside the wider use of computers will give rise to more technical errors.
In most non-teaching working environments where a computer network exists there is a network administrator and/or a technician. By contrast, in the primary school there is a heavily worked, full-time teacher. In the non-teaching working environment, the technician or administrator will have had some proper training; in most primary schools, apart from the day or so provided when the system was installed, all that exists is the technical helpline.
The time needed for technical support will grow for a variety of reasons:
New settings may be needed
New programs may be acquired
New user accounts will need setting up, not least at the start of each academic year. Beyond that there is troubleshooting:
There is a risk of problems after new software is added or old software is removed;
As the children become more experienced with the system the desire to personalise a machine at school, or to tweak the settings may be increasingly tempting.
Otherwise, as the system becomes older, the fickleness of an ageing machine may become a cause for concern.

In 'the old days', the LEA provided technical support and audio-visual repairs. The more modern approach with some LEAs is to buy in such services; other LEAs don't offer either service. Even where the support is offered, the timescale for this can be variable.

The IT co-ordinator is there to organise teaching and learning through IT. The IT co-ordinator is not in the school to be a technical troubleshooter, although increasingly this is becoming part of their remit. There are four solutions appearing in schools in the South Manchester and North-East Cheshire areas.

1. Buying in and using the LEA support. This is as close to the old days as possible. The staff know the schools and the work is invariably well done and closely in line with the latest regulations. They offer super courses for the teachers, including, in many cases, NOF training.

2. Buying in the services of an outside agency. Into Action Computers Ltd, Manchester, for instance, has broad in-school experience and offers full technical support, alongside staff training, resource and policy authoring. They also offer Intranet development and support.

3. Enlisting the support of the hardware supplier. This can be technically sound, and the advice can be constructive, but often is restricted to the machines purchased from them. Staff training opportunities can be limited.

4. Clusters of schools sharing a technician. Sometimes this is done through the local secondary school. The technical support is on hand and can resolve most problems quickly and efficiently.

5. Employing a full-time or part-time dedicated IT teacher. This is beneficial for the curricular work, and can lead to a resolution of a high number of the technical problems. New horizons were found when the NGfL was launched and primary schools began considering how they were best going to incorporate IT as a key part of the school curriculum. Some schools have established, or are establishing, IT suites; others have opted to expand computer use within the classrooms. The curriculum has been shaken; not only is the teaching of good IT skills more vital than ever, not least in the early years, but across the curriculum thought is being given as to how the expansion of primary IT can promote and enhance different subjects in new ways. This itself has given rise to software considerations; no longer is the 'software-for-kids' an ideal solution to all curricular requirements, nor will it satisfy the developing skills of the children after several years of regular use. The monitoring and assessment of IT has been given new thought and is posing new problems. It is a period of great change, and it is a time in which the IT enthusiast has the opportunity to have a bigger impact than ever.
And even the most reluctant of schools or the most technophobic of teachers has had to accept some mobility in their awareness and use of IT.
Beyond that, schools are compelled to consider their IT future in light of the NOF training plans. Some schools are seizing this as an opportunity to change.
Alongside NOF training for the staff, some teachers are being given IT-dedicated roles, be it for a day each week, for a term's block or even for a new role in the primary school. These situations invariably arise in schools where the head teacher and the governing body are willing and the budget has the flexibility. In such cases there is the opportunity for a clear direction in IT.
Gone are the days when the title 'IT co-ordinator' was an add-on to somebody's portfolio of areas of responsibility and when the technical bits were not all that vital. From the days of the Acorn in the corner of most classrooms (a machine that was so robust that children who had not been born when the machine left the factory are, in many schools, still using them today) the computer age has brought change. There has been the arrival of the PC as the major format of computers in most schools at the same time as the expansion of primary school networks and a wide use of the Internet. 
Each of these factors brings new technical hurdles. PCs, by their nature, have a complex operating system, a factor compounded by the use of a network. Beyond this, the Internet brings about periodic problems. This new age of computers in primary school potentially has massive benefits for both teaching and learning; it is no exaggeration to say that it could revolutionise education. But schools need to consider how their valuable technology can be both maintained and well used. These considerations need to be incorporated into schools' financial planning and in defining the role of the IT co-ordinator.

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