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Sunday, July 01, 2007

The dawn of e-learning in Malta

I have just published an interview with the Minister for IT Austin Gatt on e-learning. This is the full text of the interview. An abridged version was published on i-Tech, the IT supplement of The Times.

The interview:

1. First we heard a lot about learning ICT skills in view of SmartCity, and now we have started to hear a lot about learning through ICT. What’s the difference?

If you want to earn your living in the ICT business you need to learn the trade. But technologies can help you learn anything else in the way books, maps and a good teacher can.

SmartCity – and not SmartCity alone – will generate thousands of ICT-related jobs and therefore will demand a significant number of ICT professionals who are skilled and qualified in different technologies.

Promoting learning through ICTs is a distinct effort from the promotion of professional ICT skills. Since the 1990s, we introduced in schools computers, projectors, digital cameras, electronic white boards to help teachers help our students learn. ICT is already used across the curriculum.

We now want to gear up all our efforts to maximize the use of technology by promoting a more blended approach to learning by complementing traditional classroom-based training with e-learning. ICT is already integrated in the teaching of most subjects at primary and secondary level, however, a concerted drive to increase the availability and application of e-learning technologies will be made across all of our schools.

2. Does learning through ICT simply mean giving a computer with internet connection?

“Giving a DECENT computer with a good broadband connection” is where you start.

I emphasise the word ‘decent’ because today our students are hampered by the quality of the computers they are using. Whilst Maltese schools now have some 5,000 computers for teaching and have internet access in clasrroms, less than 15% of these are Pentium 4s or beyond! It suffics to say that 31% of the computers are 486s and Pentium 1s. This is why we’re making a bold move and, whilst increasing the number of PCs in schools and classrooms we are also upgrading them to the latest high quality technologies.

Now, hopefully, all this will be in place in the coming months, allowing us to go to the next step: helping teachers find good learning resources on the web, and being able to design learning with a combination of use of technology, activities and support. Promoting the use of ICTs for learning is not merely about giving the technology, but empowering teachers and pupils to use it when it is most appropriate to meet the different needs of learners and reduce the risk of exclusion for hard-to-reach groups.

This is the vision which Louis Galea and I share and are keen to deploy.

3. On the other hand, how important is the human factor in education through ICT?

Completely. Students cannot learn with books alone. And students cannot learn with computers alone. Teachers are and will always remain the locus of learning. The transfer of knowledge relies on their sense of mission, their charisma, enthusiasm and willingness to learn new things and pass them on to their students. ICTs can only help them do this and cannot replace them at it.

ICTs can also create more room for collaborative and group work between students. We can offer a connected classroom that has a more inclusive environment, where teachers are leaders, helpers, partners and evaluators. In addition to the traditional role of subject experts, teachers become facilitators of learning and managers of their own digital classrooms.

4. MIIIT was successful in promoting more ICT education, the most recent example is the edition of myPotential. Is something similar being considered to promote the use of ICT in private learning establishments?

In fact, myPotential is entirely delivered through private learning establishments. It is the first measure of the sort and we shall strive to learn further from this programme.

The e-learning strategy will promote the adoption of e-learning technologies and blended learning amongst diverse learners ranging from primary school students to adults. We want to have as many stakeholders who have target audiences who are learners including training organizations, non-government organizations, and enterprises, amongst others. Therefore, in a way with the e-learning project we will be facilitating the use of ICT in private learning establishments.

5. MIIIT has promised to give refurbished computers formerly used in the civil service to persons with disabilities, persons with special social needs etc. Did the ministry consider giving some of these computers to organisations/establishments which have education as part of their mission statement?

Yes. In fact in the coming days we shall be launching a call for expression for interest for NGOs, clubs and churches to apply for the provision of the fully functional PCs at token prices. I believe that these associations are king-pins in our social ecosystem and hence deserve to benefit from this programme directly.

6. A national e-learning strategy is being drafted and consultation exercise with stakeholders and interested parties is being undertaken right now. Why have a national e-learning strategy?

Because that is the link between having a vision (which we have) and realising it. There are some scatterred e-learning efforts undertaken by some local stakeholders that are early adopters, however the efforts are fuelled by enthusiasm and risk falling through if they are not backed up by a coherent strategy. We need to define our strategic thrust with regards to e-learning and drive this project on a national scale.

You speak of the success of myPotential and other projects. Really the key there was to go beyond having an ambitious vision (which is of course where one must start) but to have a coherent, thought out plan to execute it.

7. What is the first feedback gathered from this consultation exercise?

Early days yet. The challenge I see ahead of us is to identify the best way to work together to build on the good will that everyone has. But speaking already of what the consultation exercise is telling us would not give enough time for people who are still digesting the vision we have expressed and who still need to articulate their thoughts. A consultation exercise is a process that needs its own time and I don’t want to emaciate it by jumping the gun too soon.

8. Why do you think e-learning in Malta is still in its very early stages when you take into account that we have very good broadband take-up rate and our schools are all equipped with internet access?

e-Learning is not all that new in Malta. There are some good, but independent, examples of good practice in e-learning in Malta. For instance, the University of Malta is working on a project with schools, teachers and pupils as part of a European project that will examine the use of Personal Digital Assistants in learning; and the Institute of Tourism has set up an e-learning centre that offers on-line support for its students.

There is lots of work to do to promote a concerted effort to increase the use of e-learning. Our focus in this area will be primary and secondary schools. Technology is not just about the cables and boxes, but it is about people. There is much more we can do to support teachers develop the necessary pedagogical skills to use ICT across the curriculum, whilst ensuring that we enhance the link between them, students and parents. We are focusing on this strongly now.

9. What do you think will be the main benefits of having the Maltese educational system with a strong e-learning component?

Brighter, savvier, more articulate children for whom technology is a fact of life they know how to exploit to live full lives.

When used well, e-learning can be particularly motivational and engaging for all learners including the more challenging pupils. Everyone learns in different ways and at different rates. Through e-learning, teachers can develop pedagogies that personalize learning to reflect these differences and give greater opportunities of success in e-learning. Though we do not suffer distance problems, e-learning overcomes distance and builds links between learners and teachers that go beyond the classroom and school hours, and our shores.

Moreover, the e-learning deployment will drive technologies further into homes and will facilitate the e-engagement of parents into the information society. Essentially, it is the fulfillment of our vision throughout these last six years.

10. Is it true that MIIIT and the Ministry for Education will provide a national e-learning platform and all primary/secondary school teachers will have to provide notes and courseware on this platform?

That is only the basic proposition of what we have in mind. Although we are still at the strategy development stage, we are after integrating the full educational cycle involving parents, students and teachers into a single cutting-edge virtual educational space. This means that students will be able to access resources from multiple schools and colleges, teachers will be able to share courseware and collaborate in its development whilst parents can monitor the educational progress of their sons and daughters in real time.

11. Students have been eagerly waiting to collect the third Microsoft package of software at a nominal price. While Vista and Office 2007 were officially launched in late January 2007, these students have not yet got this package. Why?

Maltese students are among the first in the world to be using Vista. They are certainly among the first in Malta. The package is available for collection as we speak. The product for the home user was launched after that of the business users and our delivery depended entirely on Microsoft’s.

12. When the government started to install PCs in public primary schools in 1995/1996, over the years there was regular criticism of the fact that primary teachers were given a laptop computer each and classes equipped with PCs but this hardware was not utilised very well in some cases, and in other cases they remained switched off almost all the time. How this can be avoided with the installation of new PCs to be leased?

The laptop for primary school teachers initiative was a one-off initiative that was necessary but was not planned to keep up with changing technologies. The leasing of PCs for schools will enable schools, teachers and students to have the latest technologies available at school at all times and therefore the problem of outdated technology will be solved.

Of course we can provide the equipment, finance its maintenance, train people to use it, and create the framework to make it useful. Teachers will have to want to use it though. Many do. But it is not the onset of technologies that has distinguished enthusiastic teachers who use all tools available to them to teach their students from others less so.

Having said that, the decisions taken way back in this sector are the primary driver for the success story we are reaping today.

13. Which e-government services are currently being offered in the educational sector? Are you satisfied with their use? Are there any new e-government services in the educational sector planned for the future?

There are quite a few. To mention some, there are the application for part time courses with the University and the examination results. Application for exams and the notification of Matsec results this year rose above 90% take-up. A 90% take up is not only encouraging but should be the benchmark for all e-government and m-government services. This figure also indicates the way in which the coming generation is technologically savvy, an important change from the present generation.

There are new e-government services in the educational sector that will be rolled out, these are currently being identified in the context of our drive for a new wave of services. I can tell you that we will be very shortly launching the application to join MCAST full-time courses on line.

14. You said “If we want ICT and eLearning to be ubiquitous in our schools we have to push for content in Maltese”. What will be done to push for content in Maltese in the ICT sphere?

This objective, along with all others, is being developed in the strategy. Current policies in education have spaces for English and Maltese. Our bilungualism (as well as our comfort with English) is an important aspect of the nature of our education and the preparation of our young. That reality should be reflected in our eLearning processes too.

15. Anything else you would like to add?

eLearning is a tool. The end we want is to equip our young with all the tools they need to live a full, prosperous life in the future; to be prepared with the skills and resources the information society and economy of the future requires of them. We can get there. We will get there.