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Up, up and away;Subject of the week;Economics and Business

Roger Frost logs on and takes a tour of Cameron Balloons - the first virtual factory

If you want to understand how businesses work it makes sense to get out of school and see them in action - and see a lot of them. All too often, though, real school life nips plans for promising activities in the bud. But students can now take a trip to see how a business works on the Internet. Without leaving the classroom, they can visit a virtual factory - Bristol's Cameron Balloons, the world's largest manufacturer of hot air balloons.

This new business and economics resource allows students to walk or click their way round the factory floor. It shows departments such as design, accounts, marketing, production and purchasing, in words and photographs. In production, for example, students find out how the balloon is made and decorated, with explanations of terms such as costs, efficiency and batch production.

They can also meet the department managers and examine the various staff roles. Students of A-level and GNVQ courses will find not just a source for primary research, but something more moderated and finely tuned to their needs. Teachers will also find help and freely printable worksheets.

Andy Beharrell of Bristol's Clifton College wrote the factory study. He says he wanted to do more than describe a business and its language. He aims to help students make a jump from theory to practice. He adds that by seeing theory applied, students can "see the 'boxes' businesses come in working together".

The factory is a part of Bized, a unique Internet stop for business and economics students. Set up by a group including the Economics and Business Education Association and the Institute of Learning Research and Technology at the University of Bristol, it's free to schools and colleges. "It's not just a web site," says Jenny Wales, vice chair of the EBEA. "It's more a gateway to country and company facts, answering the questions students always ask big firms."

Here among the worksheets and tutor support is something close to a data mine. Reference materials include Penn World data and Extel company information as well as rich seams of background information on firms such as Body Shop, Eurostar, BT, Virgin and Unilever, Bized's major sponsors. While these businesses will have their own brochures on the Internet, Bized offers the information students ask for at an appropriate level.

Bized has run each company through the gamut of questions on marketing, mission statements, new technology, ethical principles and employment policies. They've then adapted the answers for students, filtering out the marketing hype. The benefit to the company, for example in stemming the plague of mail from students, is evident.

Still, if all this seem too useful to be true, teachers might note that the service is unlikely to feature in government plans for virtual classrooms. Alarmingly, it's because business education is not a national curriculum subject and surely a sign that something in this virtual classroom needs to get real.

Bized: 0117 928 8467 Direct line to Cameron Balloonsvirtual factory: Bized materials also feature at BBC Education's web site: education

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