Evaluation of Project FarNet Learning Communities in the Far North Publications
FarNet is one of four Digital Opportunities Pilot Projects that aimed to “bridge the digital divide” by introducing information and communications technology (ICT) into various educational settings with the ultimate aim of improving student achievement and increasing participation, particularly in maths, science and technology. The Far North was chosen as an area because the isolated nature of the schools there made it an ideal candidate area for electronic links, yet geographically challenging in terms of bandwidth provision, and because it had been identified as an area requiring support.
Author(s): Judy Parr and Lorrae Ward, Faculty of Education, University of Auckland. Report prepared for the Ministry of Education.
Date Published: 2005
FarNet was one of four Digital Opportunities Pilot Projects, aimed at "bridging the digital divide" by introducing information and communications technology (ICT) to 10 schools in the Far North. Government, business and schools worked to help remove barriers that make if difficult for schools and students to access and use ICT effectively by increasing the bandwidth available to participants, providing hardware and software, providing quality content to support teaching and learning, and offering related training and professional development to enable this to happen. The aim was to improve student achievement and increase participation, particularly in maths, science and technology. A major way this was to be accomplished in the Far North is indicated in the title of the project in the Partnership Protocol where it is referred to as "Learning Communities in the Far North". The goal was to make good resources available electronically and so make maths, science and technology "come alive" for students. Participation and retention in these subject areas would be increased through virtual schools or virtual learning communities.
This evaluation aimed to examine the assumptions underpinning FarNet; to document the implementation of FarNet; to document changes specifically in terms of access to ICT for teaching and learning resources, confidence with ICT, pedagogy and student outcomes; to identify the resources, skills, and conditions that contribute to effective use of ICT to assist teaching and learning; to examine the extent to which collaboration occurs in resource development and use within and across schools; and to highlight examples of good practice in the use of ICT by students and teachers, and in the development of resources, that stem from the project.
Multiple data sources including NZQA statistics, FarNet website postings, reports and other documents, site visits to schools, interviews with key personnel and self-report questionnaires from all teachers were used to address the evaluation questions.
Assumptions underpinning the FarNet project are critiqued, drawing upon international research literature. These assumptions are: the notion that ICT impacts on achievement outcomes, particularly those measured by national achievement standards; that ICT is a catalyst for pedagogical change to bring classrooms and learning alive; and that a professional learning community can be built electronically.
With regard to major findings, five main themes emerge from this evaluation. The findings associated with these have the potential to impact on similar future projects.
The themes are:
- The need for shared understandings of what a project entails specifically, what participant's roles are, what the desired outcomes are and, most importantly, how these will benefit teaching and learning both in the short and longer term. Where related projects are operating, synergies need to be forged explicitly.
- Access to infrastructure has a significant impact on both teacher skill and confidence. FarNet, together with later complementary initiatives, was seen as successful in facilitating greatly increased access. However, any hardware and software must be technically robust and able to be readily integrated into existing systems to facilitate teacher confidence and willingness to use.
- Professional development offered must move beyond simple "one size fits all" workshops primarily designed for skills enhancement as teachers appear to be a very heterogeneous group with respect to ICT skills. During the course of FarNet, teacher skill levels reportedly increased markedly. But, teacher goals for ICT professional development, in general, may be limited when the potential of ICT is not fully understood. There is a clear need for a strong pedagogical content in professional development and there was very limited evidence of such. This may partly explain the very modest degree of change in use of ICT in teaching and learning where most change was in relation to planning, preparation and administration. There is a demonstrable need for continuous professional learning (as opposed to professional development) to occur.
- The creation of a professional learning community is a complex process and a number of factors need to be present before such a community will thrive. These include cultivating a climate where teachers are comfortable to deprivatise practice and accept collective responsibility for teacher and student learning. The proportion of teachers who participated by "posting" resources on the FarNet site was small and virtually confined to curriculum leaders. There was little evidence of widespread use of the resources available, which were predominantly electronic versions of print resources with some notable exceptions. Where communities appeared to operate best in FarNet, for example the community of Maori teachers, they were building on previous links. In other cases they were sustained, albeit in a weak form, by volunteerism. While ICT has the potential to facilitate ongoing professional learning and communication, many of the implementation issues of a professional learning community are compounded when the community is online.
- A number of factors mean that it is virtually impossible to determine the level of impact such projects have on teaching and learning without sophisticated evaluation methodologies that are still being developed. In the case of FarNet there were other, closely aligned projects. In fact, Digital Opportunities became like an umbrella framework, subsuming other projects. Another issue, in terms of assessing outcomes from projects such as this, is that the lead time is considerable in terms of the project gaining traction. Longer timeframes are suggested before consideration of any more than indicative or tentative trends is warranted.
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