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"The Internet is a timely tool for educators who are reforming education. If we believe information is the bedrock of knowledge, understanding and power, then universal access, to worldwide databases and up-to-the-minute, global information and people-to-people networking, is crucial to providing students with educational challenges."
Children and adolescents in modern societies are growing up in a world where technology is present everywhere. The extensive use of Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) by adolescents in their daily life for leisure, entertainment and social interaction is making a great impact on their learning needs, requirements and expectations. They need to learn skills and competences, for self-development, participation in society as well as for future jobs. Moreover, they are also increasingly using ICT for any learning purposes, often outside the classroom. This gives rise to new ways of learning, including informal ones which are shaped by new ICT tools, offering exciting learning opportunities that are fundamentally different than earlier tools.
This is the reason why education is experiencing a major innovation and the instrument in this development is the computer. Computers and internet facilities are nowadays available in all our state schools: from primary to secondary and also at the tertiary level. It is expected that education will see ICT as a major teaching and learning tool across all educational institutions. With its power of interactivity, multimedia and communication, the computer proves an excellent tool for education. Psychologists believe that the best feedback is that which comes immediately after the event. What can be more immediate than 'surfing' the internet and getting the results wished for within seconds?
Of course, the use of ICT in education brings along the need to learn how to use this medium properly because there are numerous ways in which the computer can be integrated within the learning process. Therefore new teaching methods need to be explored, equipment has to be purchased, installed, regularly maintained and teachers require training. This eventually leads to results which definitely need to be evaluated and reviewed for further improvement.
1.1.1 Virtual Learning Environment
Recent years have seen a considerable range of tools and programmes that support on-line learning. One such type is a virtual learning environment which is a web-based information-rich learning environment that provides a range of tools and facilities for learners and teachers to work together. INSPIRAL, a project in the United Kingdom, defined virtual learning environments as follows:
"VLEs are web-based toolkits that facilitate learning through the provision and integration of online teaching and learning materials and tools."
This brings about a shift in the crucial role of the teacher, from that of 'gatekeeper' of knowledge to that of 'facilitator' and 'manager' of the learning environment, in order to meet the needs of the students. Thus, the student, through the guidance of the teacher, sets priorities and achievable goals and takes on the responsibility for reaching the set goals. Students have the opportunity to engage in self-directed learning experiences and activities that promote self-expression, co-operative learning and interaction not only with their immediate environment but with the outside world as well.
Objectives of the Investigation
There is a sense of urgency for education institutions to find ways to act in favour of the new learning generation in order to enable new ways of learning ensuring that the skills for future jobs are acquired. It is essential to make sure that twenty-first century learning in Europe, especially in Malta, becomes more efficient, equitable and innovative than it ever was in the past.
The European 2020 strategy highlights important trends, which will lead to a radical transformation in education taking up new skills needed for new jobs. In this respect, e-learning has many assets to offer so as to reinforce and make more accessible educational aspects. Teachers therefore need to become mediators between students, knowledge and technology while internet-based social networking will be a complimentary feature to virtual learning. This strategy aims at sharing best practices on e-learning projects across Europe with a particular emphasis on mobility, quality standards, teachers' training and games.
At the European Council held in Lisbon in March 2000, fifteen European Heads of Government set a goal for Europe to become the most competitive knowledge-based economy in the world, capable of sustainable economic growth with more and better jobs and greater social cohesion. Due to the fact that ICT and other related policies play a fundamental role in achieving the goals of the Lisbon strategy, the renewed Lisbon goals of 2005 included plans to facilitate innovation through the implementation of ICT and higher investment in human capital.
Brian Restall, (2008) in the report 'The Development of eServices in an Enlarged EU: eLearning in Malta', presents the results of a research on e-learning in Malta. The government invested substantially in ICT in public schools in the last decade. This has allowed the Maltese education sector to be ranked as one of the most technologically connected in the world. All state schools are networked, connected to broadband internet with a computer and an initiative has been launched to use ICT across the curriculum.
However it is worthy of note that the lack of expertise and practical support in putting into practice e-learning in the curriculum, together with appropriate training both for teachers and students, is still contributing significantly to the limitations of uptake. In fact, most of the efforts that have been noted locally were in most cases results of independent efforts at the integration of ICT in education.
E-learning is not about taking classroom-based learning and pushing it down a wire. Rather, e-learning presents a new perspective on how technology can be applied to enhance what teachers do well now, and to introduce new innovative ways to maximise the accessibility, enjoyment and the effectiveness of learning for the individual. Indeed, on-line learning can also allow educational experiences to be tailored to the needs of individuals or groups of individuals. Other social groups, such as learners with family commitments and with disabilities, can also benefit if the physical and temporal obstacles to education are removed with the help of technology.
"A major challenge which the present education system faces is the effective and efficient operation of the different educational services in order to provide quality education 'for all children to succeed', a leading objective of the Ministry of Education. The educational infrastructure and system has grown to such an extent that it requires a more timely and effective delivery of services and support."
Although the research carried out in this particular area has not been conclusive, the 'laptop for teachers' initiative, and other similar efforts  have proven to contribute to teachers' improvement of ICT literacy.
In secondary schools especially, holistic approaches to ICT integration should become the norm rather than the exception. The ICT skills that Maltese students are acquiring during their ICT lessons need to be used in other subjects in order to embed the skills gained. Some schools are already attempting inter-disciplinary and cross-curricular courses and are realising the potential of ICT; however more schools need to make such a step.
On the other hand, a recent "knowledge mapping" exercise conducted by the World Bank's Information for Development Programme (InfoDev) (Trucano, 2005) revealed that, despite decades of large investments in ICT to benefit education in Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries, information to support the theoretical benefits from ICT are limited.
After realising the problem that occurred within the past years where only classroom-based learning was taking place without teachers making use of ICT tools, as described in this section and as summarised below, the main objectives that this dissertation will attempt to reach are:
How to best integrate the use of ICT with the learning of Mathematics, namely the topic of Algebra
Gain an insight and therefore compare the interactions that happen in the classroom and on-line
Structure of the Investigation
The first part of this dissertation gives a review of different literatures and studies that have taken place world-wide. Emphasis is put on those coming from the United Kingdom, besides those from Malta. This is because, Maltese education has constantly moved, somehow, in accordance with British education.
The method of how the research was carried out will then be explained in detail and finally the data and results obtained will be analysed and compared. The dissertation will conclude with some recommendations given to teachers who would like to improve, with the help of ICT, the mathematical learning experience offered in Maltese schools.