|Australasian Journal of Educational Technology
2006, 22(3), 355-374.
Course delivery mediated by information and communication technology (ICT) is increasingly seen as a desirable and cost effective means of providing study opportunities to large numbers of teachers. However, it is unclear to what extent teachers have access to the ICT infrastructure that is required for participation in such study. This paper reports on a survey of teachers' access to ICT infrastructure and offers some insights into the nature and adequacy of that access. A sample of 203 trained teachers was surveyed regarding their access to hardware, software, and the Internet both at work and outside work. Data regarding access to technical support were collected also. Access to adequate levels of ICT infrastructure was not universal among teachers in this sample and access levels varied with teacher characteristics such as age and school type. Teachers in Government schools had slightly poorer levels of access, both at home and at school, when compared with teachers in independent schools. The most problematic area of access overall was in technical support which, when coupled with the reportedly low and variable levels of ICT skills among teachers, would represent a major impediment to successful and satisfactory participation in ICT mediated study for many teachers. These findings have important implications for developers of ICT mediated courses for teachers and for those who seek to encourage teachers' participation in such study.
However, despite the large investments in ICT infrastructure across school systems, there is reason to question whether all teachers have ready access to that infrastructure, and whether the access that they do have is adequate for their teaching and administrative needs (Kay, 2006; Zhao & Frank, 2003). Lankshear and Snyder (2000), for example, stated that not only is variability of ICT infrastructure among schools common but that similar variability exists within schools. That is, some parts of the same school can have very different levels of infrastructure. Hernandez-Ramos (2005) drew a distinction between access and availability, suggesting that, even where ICT infrastructure is located within schools, this may not be freely available for use by some individuals and groups of teachers. This discrepancy between access and availability may occur because some teachers are unaware that computers are, in fact, available to them for various purposes, or because some teachers perceive other impediments to their use of those computers. These impediments may relate to power relationships within schools, inconvenient location of computers, or restrictions on access times. Morton referred to discrepancies between access and availability in 1999, suggesting that this is not a new problem.
It is not possible to be definitive about the nature of the ICT infrastructure that would be required for ICT mediated study, as practices vary so greatly and the field is evolving so rapidly (AUTC, 2002; Oblinger, 2000). In reviewing the literature dealing with these practices, variously described, some insights into the actual technologies employed do emerge. Unsurprisingly in such a rapidly evolving field, the technologies referred to in the literature reflect the age of the reported research. For example, various early studies reported on the use of file access and transfer systems such as telnet, FTP (e.g., Osman, Noi, Sai, & Chall, 1998), and listserv (Hawkes, 2000). Some of these older technologies are still employed but are largely hidden from the end user and require no special skills or understandings. When clicking on a hyperlink in a web page, the modern end user does not need to know what protocol is being used to transfer the target file to their computer screen. The web based course delivery systems that are now widespread in Australian universities, such as WebCT and Blackboard (Bell, Nicholson, O'Brien & Tran, 2002), are designed to require little ICT skill or understanding beyond the ability to use a computer, an Internet connection, and to move files from one location to another.
The bulk of the practices reported on in the literature involve technologies that can be considered as comprising two main functions:
In the ICT mediated courses identified in the literature, the most common modes of information transmission involved the use of CDs and DVDs, files sent as email attachments, information displayed on web sites, and Internet (usually web) accessed library and data base information (Naidu, 2002). In some more specialised cases, 'traditional' video conferencing was employed, for example, in language teaching (Steed & Trevitt, 2001). However, with video conferencing facilities that require dedicated equipment and skilled technical support staff, it is doubtful that this will be an affordable technology for many (Hardin & Ziebarth, 2000). The highly interactive multimedia technologies envisaged in Taylor's (2001) fifth generation, ICT mediated distance education are probably still largely in the future. Although various forms of online multimedia are used now for educational purposes, for example, simulations, interactive graphics, and video clips, the widespread use of these must wait on the availability of the necessary bandwidth (Naidu, 2002). That is, these technologies involve file sizes that cannot realistically be delivered to people without high speed, broadband Internet connections. Although the takeup of broadband services is increasing rapidly in Australia (ABS, 2005) the bandwidth available to most home users is well below that which is regarded as 'true broadband' in other developed countries (Sydney Morning Herald, 2006). Limitations in Internet connectivity are similarly seen as a major impediment to effective ICT use in Australian schools (ICT in Schools Taskforce, 2005). Until true broadband connectivity is available and affordable to students in their homes and schools the use of fifth generation technologies will remain limited.
If web based technologies have become the standard for ICT mediated courses in universities as suggested by the Australian Universities Teaching Committee (2002), then the level of ICT infrastructure required for this form of study would, in most cases, be relatively modest and similar to that required for everyday purposes such as Internet banking and online shopping. However, it is unclear whether all teachers have access to even that modest level of ICT infrastructure. It is possible that some teachers can use the ICT infrastructure in their schools to carry out components of the continuing studies, however, this may be limited by time constraints and demands on that ICT infrastructure for other purposes.
The literature provides only limited insight into teachers' access to ICT infrastructure for study purposes, either at home or at their place of work. One source of information on access at work is the large scale study by Meredyth and colleagues (1999) which collected data from 1,258 teachers and 222 principals across a range of states and school types. They asked a question about "access to computer hardware and/or software for ... personal use at work", (p. 172) which could encompass personal study purposes. Although most respondents (82%) said that their school did provide this access, participation in the survey was voluntary so it is possible that these results represented a 'best case' picture of teachers' skills in this area. In any event, considerable variation among groups of teachers was evident, with 90 percent of teachers in Victoria agreeing that their school provided them with access to hardware and software for personal use at work, while in Tasmania the figure was a much lower, 57 percent. School level was also a factor with 86 percent of primary school teachers agreeing with the proposition, in comparison with only 80 percent for secondary school teachers. Although this study (Meredyth, Russell, Blackwood, Thomas & Wise, 1999) is now quite old, it is questionable whether much has changed. The use of ICT in school education is still characterised more by "islands of excellence" than by the sort of wholesale transformations that have occurred in other areas of society (Schrum, 2005) and it is widely accepted that teachers' ICT access and skill levels remain problematic (e.g. Kay, 2006; Zhao & Frank, 2003). A recent study found that this situation existed even among schools in 'Silicon Valley' (Hernandez-Ramos, 2005).
The situation regarding teachers' access at home is even less clear. The study cited above (Meredyth et al., 1999) also asked a question about teachers' access to computers at home. Most teachers reported that they did have such access (85%) but, again, the pattern of responses revealed considerable variability among states and school types, and with the age and sex of the teachers. Although this study is now quite dated, no more recent source of information appears to be available nor was any direct reference found in the literature to teachers' access to the Internet, to software, or to other technologies that may be used in ICT mediated study.
The Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) provides some data on the Australian population as a whole. In 2002, the most recent census year and the year in which the data for the research reported in this paper were collected, the ABS (2003a) found that 61 percent of Australian households had a computer. Computer ownership increased from 60 percent of household in 2000 to 65 percent in 2003 (DCITA, 2004), so, unless this rate of increase has grown in recent years, it appears likely that a significant proportion of Australian households would still be without a computer.
The ABS (2003b) also provides some insights into Internet access at home across the Australian population. In 2002, this stood at 46 percent nationally and, by 2003, at 55 percent (DCITA, 2004). Again, this is a modest rate of increase and indicates the likelihood that a significant proportion of Australian households would still be without Internet access today.
The 2002 census data showed that both computer ownership and Internet access increased with household income to a high of 90 percent and 81 percent respectively for household incomes over $99,999. It is not possible to know the household income of the typical teacher in 2002, but one might assume that it would be somewhere in the middle of the population range. If this is so, it is likely that household computer ownership among teachers was between 76 and 83 percent. Internet access has been found to be steady at approximately 10 percent below the figure for computer ownership (DCITA, 2004) suggesting access among teachers' households of around 66 to 73 percent. These calculations involve a great many assumptions but do suggest that a sizable minority of teachers may be in households that do not own a computer and are not connected to the Internet.
Of course, the ABS data present an either or choice - a computer or no computer - and provides no insight into the quality of the computer or its suitability for ICT mediated study.
The availability of technical support is an important aspect of ICT infrastructure. This is closely related to ICT skill levels as users with a high level of skill will, in general, be more able to carry out their own trouble-shooting and more able to draw technical support from readily available sources such as manuals and online help resources. The evidence on teachers' ICT skills suggests that high skill levels are far from universal and that many would require technical support in order to carry out ICT use at even modest levels of complexity (e.g., DET, 2000; Lankshear & Snyder, 2000; Zhao & Frank, 2003). Little is known about the availability of technical support to teachers for the purposes of their own studies. However, it has been suggested that technical supports for ICT use in schools is inadequate (Angus, Olney, Ainley, Caldwell, Burke, Selleck & Spinks, 2004; Bullock, 2004) and highly variable among schools (Lankshear & Snyder, 2000; Phelps, Graham & Kerr, 2004).
In summary, we have an incomplete understanding of the adequacy of teachers' access to the ICT infrastructure that they would require in order to undertake ICT mediated continuing study. Although it appears likely that the majority of teachers would have the access required, it appears equally likely that a minority do not. A better understanding of this minority is required in order to assist us in developing and delivering satisfactory and successful ICT mediated courses. It may be necessary, for example, to identify those students requiring assistance and to direct resources to support them in their studies. Also, as web technologies are becoming a standard means of course delivery in universities (AUTC, 2002; Bell et al., 2002), it is important that we obtain a better understanding of the minority of teachers who have inadequate access to ICT infrastructure, to ensure that they do not avoid studying out of a perception of inadequacy or fear of the technology involved. To address these needs, a study was undertaken to ascertain the levels and variations in teachers' access to various aspects of ICT infrastructure, specifically: hardware, software, Internet access, and technical support.
The age, sex, and school type (government or independent) characteristics of the sample obtained were compared with data from other sources (ABS, 2003c; LifeLong Learning Associates, 1999; Meredyth et al., 1999) describing Australian teachers at, or close to, the period of data collection. No significant discrepancies between the sampled and reported groups of teachers were found for these characteristics.
Almost 90 per cent of surveyed teachers were trained in Australia or in other countries with similar teaching systems (e.g., New Zealand and UK).
However, it is not suggested that this sample is wholly representative of the wider population of teachers in Australia. All respondents were, or had recently been, enrolled in postgraduate studies in teaching related areas. Although the majority of Australian teachers engage in professional development activities, it is likely that only a proportion undertake formal postgraduate studies. The extent to which the sampled teachers differ from the general population of Australian teachers is unknown and this imposes constraints upon the application of the findings of this study to groups of teachers who have not undertaken postgraduate studies at a university.
The majority (69%) of teachers in the sample identified South Australia as their most recent teaching location. A further 18 percent were, or had recently been, teaching in other states of Australia so this is predominantly a South Australian sample.
In the questionnaire, a standard Likert style response format was used. For example:
Factor analysis of the questionnaire data was undertaken using SPSS for Windows version 11.0.0 [SPSS, 2001]. and produced a 6-factor solution that accorded closely with the hypotheses underlying the design of the questionnaire. Reliability testing was also conducted to identify the relative contribution of the items within each factor scale. Both the factor analysis process, and the reliability testing of the resultant scales, led to a reduction of items from the original 69 to produce a final 43 item, 6-factor solution which accounted for 59.9 percent of total variance. Table 1 shows the factors identified and their relative contributions to the total explained variance.
|Factor 1: ICT skills and knowledge||28.8%|
|Factor 2: Positivity toward ICT use in everyday life||8.6%|
|Factor 3: Access to ICT infrastructure and support at home||8.0%|
|Factor 4: Willingness to undertake ICT mediated study||5.8%|
|Factor 5: Access to ICT infrastructure and support at school||4.4%|
|Factor 6: ICT use in teaching||4.3%|
The data reported in this paper are drawn from the scales for factors 3 and 5, access to ICT infrastructure at home and at school. Data on other factor scales will be reported in subsequent papers as will the results of path analysis undertaken to compare various models which sought to explain the relationships among the factors and their relationship to the outcome variable, willingness to undertake ICT mediated study.
|My access to computers outside of work is adequate for my needs|
|My access to other ICT (e.g., scanners, printers, CD burners, digital cameras) outside of work is adequate for my needs|
|My access to software outside of work is adequate for my needs|
|I have adequate access to the Internet from outside of work|
|My access to computers outside of work is adequate for my needs|
|I have adequate technical support ... outside of work|
For simplicity of presentation, the access ratings of 1, 2 and 3 have been aggregated to produce a single measure of adequacy of access. Figure 1 presents responses to the questions in Table 1.
Figure 1: Teachers with adequate access at home
The availability of computers was clearly adequate for the needs of the majority (93%) of this group. They were similarly well served with software (84%) and Internet access (84%). Access to other ICT, such as scanners and digital cameras, was not quite as good but still satisfactory to the majority (66%). Access to technical support at home was the weakest area reported by this group and, although a majority (61%) reported support as adequate, the 39 per cent who did not are a concern in terms of ICT use at home.
|My access to computers at work is adequate for my needs|
|My access to other ICT (e.g. scanners, printers, CD burners, digital cameras) at work is adequate for my needs|
|My access to software at work is adequate for my need|
|I have adequate access to the Internet from work|
|I have adequate technical support for my use of ICT at work|
Figure 2: Teachers with adequate access at work
In view of the large investment in ICT infrastructure in schools in the recent past, one might reasonably expect to find very few teachers reporting inadequate access to basic infrastructure. That was not the case in this study. If these findings are truly reflective of teachers' access to ICT across the school system, then the finding that 16 per cent lacked adequate access to computers, 20 per cent to software, and 29 per cent to other ICT, would represent a serious impediment to the stated goals of educational systems in Australia and to the hopes of using these technologies as an effective channel for conducting continuing education.
Figure 3: Comparison of access: Home and work
[All relationships other than Internet access are significant at .05 or better]
With the exception of Internet access, which was relatively high in both instances, all other access measures were closely correlated perhaps suggesting that whatever influenced access in one place also influenced access in the other.
Figure 4: Access to computers at home (and regular use)
All age groups reported high levels of access and regular use of computers in their daily lives. Similarly, age was largely unrelated to access at work. The one exception being access to the Internet which showed the lowest level of access in the youngest age group. Figure 5 shows the levels of access to computers at work across the various age groups. For comparison, access at work is shown alongside positive responses to the questionnaire item: 'ICT use is a frequent part of my own teaching'. Age was not significantly related to either.
Although not directly relevant to this study, the low rates of ICT use in teaching in the younger age groups is worrying but is consistent with reports in the recent literature (Haddad & Jurich, 2002; Schrum, 2005).
Figure 5: Access to computers at work (and use in teaching)
Figure 6: Access to computers at home
A similar difference was found in the case of access to computers at work. For comparison, this is shown in Figure 7 alongside positive responses to the statement: 'ICT use is a frequent part of my own teaching'. It is unclear why teachers in government schools should report less access to computers than their colleagues in independent, while both report near equal rates of use in teaching. Perhaps, teachers in independent schools have greater access to computers at school for other purposes, such as administration. This study offers no insights into this matter.
Figure 7: Access to computers at work
Figure 8: Availability of technical support at home and work
As has been reported elsewhere, teachers' access to ICT infrastructure is highly variable within and among schools (Lankshear & Snyder, 2000). In this study, age was not a significant factor influencing levels of access, but school type was, with slightly higher access in independent schools.
ICT mediated course delivery is increasingly seen as a desirable and cost effective means of reaching large numbers of teachers (Nichol & Watson, 2003; Postle, 2002; Vance & McKinnon, 2002) but this requires that the target audience has access to the necessary ICT infrastructure. The findings of this study suggest that adequate access is far from universal among teachers and that technical support is the area of greatest need. When coupled with the reported low and highly variable levels of ICT skill among teachers (e.g., Lankshear & Snyder, 2000; Phelps, Graham & Kerr, 2004), the limited access to technical support is of major concern.
If teachers are not as well served with ICT infrastructure as many in universities and the school systems assume, the provision of successful and satisfactory continuing study opportunities for teachers will be compromised. Continuing study is seen as vital in maintaining and improving the quality of school education and any impediment to this ongoing process should be regarded as a serious matter. It may be necessary for school systems, or some other concerned agency such as a state government, to look at means by which levels of ICT infrastructure among school teachers might be improved. In the absence of such outside assistance, course developers would be well advised to give careful consideration to the ICT capabilities of their intended student market and design for limited and variable levels of access and support. It may also advisable to develop strategies to identify those teachers who do not have the necessary ICT infrastructure and to provide targeted assistance to help overcome their limitations.
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|Author: Lindsay Burnip|
Flexible Delivery Unit, Faculty of Education, Humanities, Law, and Theology
Flinders University, Bedford Park SA 5042
Please cite as: Burnip, L. (2006). ICT mediated study and teachers: Do they have access to the infrastructure? Australasian Journal of Educational Technology, 22(3), 355-374. http://www.ascilite.org.au/ajet/ajet22/burnip.html