Grand plans

ictQATAR's measured approach to ICT reform is set to bring boundless benefits.
Grand plans
By Fida Slayman
Thu 05 Feb 2009 04:00 AM

ictQATAR's measured approach to ICT reform is set to bring boundless benefits.

A plan to revolutionise technology in Qatar's schools is underway. An army of teachers is being trained, millions of dollars are being invested, and thousands of students are learning in ways they never have before.

Much of this progress can be credited to ictQATAR (Supreme Council of Information & Communication Technology), the organisation charged with developing and delivering the government's e-education strategy.

No matter how much technology we bring into a school, if the teacher isn’t trained and supported, no project will succeed.

As ictQATAR's e-education manager, Dr Ghadah Fakieh's approach to reforming ICT in schools is clear, calculated, and resolute. "Children are becoming independent learners. We first had a vision and goals to enrich the learning experience; to allow learning to happen anytime, anywhere," she says.

"From those goals we developed a national ICT educational strategy, which focused on initiatives we are now implementing."

The wide variety of initiatives target the country's publicly-funded, privately-run independent schools, the face of the Education for a New Era reforms.

Though these projects initially addressed ICT deficiencies in these schools, Fakieh admits they were steered by technical rather than pedagogical motives.

"When we started in the first year, the focus was more technical; we found there wasn't enough participation," she says.

"But now our approach to the projects is different. The projects we do now have to be led by education, not technology. If they're not approached from an educational perspective, they will not be used."

The flagship initiative of ictQATAR's education-led strategy is Knowledge Net (K-net), an online portal connecting teachers, school administrators, parents and students.

Now in its third year, K-net operates in 37 independent schools, with plans to expand to 107 by the 2010/11 academic year. "K-net has become a hub of all of our learning initiatives," says Fakieh.

Students are using it to submit homework online, which is then corrected and returned with feedback. Parents are also taking advantage of its unique properties to communicate with teachers and check on their children's academic progress. Teachers will soon be able to use K-net to share lesson plans, take part in online training courses, and collaborate on research.

Schools have been very keen to adopt K-net, says Fakieh. "Almost all schools wanted to be part of it, and some schools even got upset that they were not selected."

In the bag

Spearheading the drive towards independent learning is ictQATAR's e-schoolbag initiative. Now in its second year, the project aims to equip each student in Qatar's independent schools with a tablet PC, loaded with interactive study materials mapped to the Qatari curriculum.

Students can work on the PCs both in the classroom and at home, and use them to communicate with their teachers outside of school hours. Teachers can also customise the learning activities on the PCs to cater to students' specific needs. "It's an intensive project," says Fakieh, "very ambitious and unique."

Six schools have been selected to pilot the project, with the aim of making them the model for further expansion. "We are developing the schools to lead ICT education in Qatar within three years," continues Fakieh.

An essential tenet of the project's success, she adds, is teacher training. "Initially we had consultants come and do some training and then leave," she says. "But now our approach is different; we're providing an e-learning consultant in the school all the time." The consultant will be responsible for "training teachers on how to best integrate technology in the school, especially for maths, science and English," she continues.

A technical specialist will also be based permanently at each school, to ensure that all technology runs smoothly and to relieve teachers' worries in case it doesn't.

Adapted from a successful Singaporean model, the e-schoolbag project presented initial implementation challenges in Qatar. "Schools' e-maturity level in Singapore is different to Qatar," says Fakieh.

"Our schools didn't catch on as quickly as theirs, so we had to change our approach." Schools now undertake preparations for a year before being admitted to the project, during which their readiness to adopt the project is assessed.

Because the success of the pilot project rests in choosing the right schools, ictQATAR has developed specific criteria they must fulfil to participate. "We have found that school leaders need to develop a vision," she says.

"If they have a vision for ICT in education, then the project succeeds."

Part of this vision lies in schools' readiness to embrace ICT within its curriculums. "We assess the teachers and the schools before they come into the project," Fakieh explains. "They first have to have the commitment. Then they have to be technically ready."

Schools demonstrate technical readiness by appointing a permanent technical manager to oversee the project's implementation, submitting to a needs assessment by ictQATAR, and by developing an ICT plan.

"Schools develop the ICT plans with the support of technical and educational consultants we bring in from abroad," Fakieh continues.

Since its inception in 2005, K-net has evolved into a hub from which other initiatives have been launched. The criteria currently used to assess schools for inclusion in K-net, for example, will soon be expanded to form a larger initiative which Fakieh calls ‘e-readiness.'

"This is basically a web-based tool that measures e-education maturity levels in schools," she explains.

As schools typically differ in their commitment and capability to integrate ICT, it becomes essential to have a standardised system that measures each school's status before it embarks on reforms. Once this status is determined, ICT initiatives can then target schools' specific needs.

The main drivers of the e-readiness project will be school principals, says Fakieh.

"They will define their school's maturity level, and develop an ICT plan for the school."

Once this is done, ictQATAR will then send a team of consultants to discuss ways of executing the plan. "By doing it this way we will be more successful in making sure that all the schools reach the maturity level we want," Fakieh adds.

ictQATAR will rank schools according to five levels of e-maturity. "Schools were assessed in 2004," says Fakieh, "and we found that most were at levels one and two."

ictQATAR's short-term strategy is to move all schools in Qatar to level three, whereby they will be ‘ICT enabled' - with a vision for ICT, a professional development strategy and at least one computer for every three students.

By 2015, Fakieh wants to see Qatar's schools achieve the ‘ICT integrated' level, one which includes systematic professional development, effective technical support, strong leadership and thorough ICT integration.

"I think we have a wonderful strategy," says Fakieh of ictQATAR's long-term goals. "Technology is a responsibility. If we take on that responsibility, then we have to do it right."

Investing in teachers

The benefits to be gained from systematic and effective teacher training cannot be underestimated, says Fakieh.

"No matter how much technology we bring into the school, if teachers are not trained and supported, no project will succeed."

ictQATAR initially relied solely on overseas-based consultants to provide schools with training, a strategy which soon proved ineffective, she explains.

"Once the consultants leave, who's going to continue the project? We realised we needed to develop a capability-building programme." Local project managers were then recruited, given trainer training instruction, and assigned to work at each school on a permanent, full-time basis.

Teachers, further, have access to three lines of support, based at school and network level, for both pedagogical and technical assistance in ICT integration. Online modules available through the learning management system K-net also serve to provide extra training outside of school hours.

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