A growing number of schools are exchanging their floppy disks and CD-Roms for content that is delivered from the Internet or private intranets linked to the schools' computer networks. It is all part of a trend towards what has been called e-learning, digital learning or anytime, anywhere learning, where educational materials are delivered online and can be accessed from almost anywhere. Developments such as the take-over of educational CD-Rom publisher Dorling Kindersley by media giant Pearson will also result in fewer CD-Rom titles being published in the education market. Online services such as Anglia Multimedia's FreeCampus, and TIME Computers' Supanet, now provide educational content that is specifically aimed at parents and children.
Many schools already put their educational content on to an intranet server and distribute it on the school network, and some LEAs have launched authority-wide intranet services that provide schools with content. Granada Learning, for example, has contracts with LEAs such as Bolton, Somerset and Hertfordshire to supply content for their intranets. CLEO (Cumbria and Lancashire Education Online) is a regional broadband consortium which offers schools a variety of online content.
"Content is going online and I think we'll see the demise of the CD-Rom as a distributor for content," says Ray Fleming, RM's secondary schools manager. "The main challenge is that online content can't offer the same amount of interactivity as a CD-Rom, but that will change in about 18 months when many secondary schools have high-speed Internet links." But online content is already offering greater interactivity thanks to developments like Macromedia's Flash and Shockwave plug-ins or software add-ons to Web browsers that allow them to interact with animated graphics.
The websites of many educational publishers have changed from simply being online adverts for CD-Roms to services where schools can select and download content - at a price. Sherston's website includes an online catalogue and online ordering system, as well as online activities that can be downloaded and used for free. The demand for online content is certainly there. More than one third of UK schools (35 per cent) subscribe to RM's Living Library, an online resource service which offers content from publishers such as Oxford University Press, Helicon and Hodder amp; Stoughton. Some 10,000 new articles are added weekly, and over two million articles are available online.
In the past year, Granada Learning has acquired Letts, NFER Nelson and Anglia Multimedia. Although it's too early to comment on the company's plans for Anglia Multimedia, Granada Learning plans to use Letts and NFER as part of a new online service. Granada Learning has licensed a system known as Wolf (Wolverhampton Open Learning Framework), soon to be renamed LearnWise, a system used by the University of Wolverhampton to offer 250 online courses to 250,000 students: "I think you could see us using Letts for an online revision service, and NFER for online testing and assessment," says David Eccles, general manager of Granada Learning.
DIALnet has launched Learnall.net, an online service that has educational resources from more than 40 educational publishers including Channel 4 Learning, Espresso Productions, SAM and AVP. A new service, Resources, offers classroom materials organised by subject area and (where relevant) attainment level. DIALnet's service costs teachers pound;10 per month, although some of the materials involve additional payment.
Espresso Productions delivers a mix of video, CD-Rom-type activities and web content to primary schools via a high-speed satellite link. Editor David Summers says, online delivery offers many benefits: "It's not like a CD-Rom, which is an inert piece of software. Online-delivered content is organic because you can easily change it or upgrade it. We deliver new content every week to schools. It means we can react to events or to teachers' requests."
But one of the problems is finding the right content online. Subscribing to a services such as Anglia Campus, Learnall.net and Living Library can help, but searching for other materials on the Internet can take ages. Sites such as the Virtual Teachers Centre, Eduweb and ThinkQuest, offer useful listings of educational websites. Online offerings from museums, galleries and organisations such as the Met Office, are also good sources of educational content. And sites from commercial companies can provide many useful teaching and learning materials, such as Cadbury's Learning Zone.
Dave Hassell, head of curriculum and innovation development at BECTA (the British Educational Communications and Technology Agency), says: "One of the problems is getting people to realise that it's not just about putting text, pictures and video on the Net, but how it's going to be used - how are we going to be certain that kids engage their brains when they go online?" TEEM (Teachers Evaluating Educational Multimedia) has gained approval from the DFEE for a 12-month trial to evaluate online content. This month, TEEM is launching training packages and a programme to recruit 80 teacher evaluators for assessing online content. But offering online content presents educational publishers with many challenges: "There's a huge upfront cost involved," says David Eccles. "When you publish a CD-Rom, you get the cost back after a year, but online services require on-going maintenance - you've got to keep your site alive and interesting so people return."
Online content also poses challenges for schools. One of these is technical. Most schools have slow, narrowband connections to the Internet, such as telephone modems and ISDN links, and downloading content can take a long time. Peter Stibbons, managing director of Anglia Multimedia, believes broadband services could be further away than the optimists realise. He says: "In four years' time, 60 per cent of Internet connections will still be narrowband, so we have to be careful how we advance."
But perhaps the biggest challenge is cultural. The general perception is that online content should be free, but Dave Hassell says: "There's no such thing as a free lunch. If good content is to appear on the Net it either has to be paid for by subscription or covered by sponsorship or advertising." David Eccles adds: "The e-commerce boom has been hyped and few people are actually buying things online. Schools still have to get people to sign bits of paper and then fax or post their order - there needs to be a change in the way schools operate."
Dawn Mullholland, DIALnet's sales and marketing director, believes this will happen: "Schools are used to paying for books, videos and CD-Roms, and I think we'll see them using existing funds or new money to make online purchases. The fact that 15 per cent of the Standards Fund has been allocated for online content will help."
Dave Hassell believes the existing online purchasing systems are a deterrent: "At the moment it's an all-or-nothing model. You either take out a big subscription for an online service or you don't. Teachers would like to be able to purchase what they want without having to sign up for the full service. We'd like to see companies offering a micro-payment purchasing model." Fleming believes online purchasing will become more flexible: "You'll see a variety of payment models, such as renting software by the hour. It means schools don't have a large up-front cost when buying software."
The phrase "paradigm shift" is often used to describe a fundamental change in the way a market or an organisation operates, and there is no doubt that the educational content sector is undergoing radical changes. But Nick Austin, responsible for marketing and training at TEEM, says some things will never alter: "The rules for good content are the same, wherever it comes from."
George Cole is a freelance journalist and a former teacher Useful websites
www.teem.org.ukThink Quest www.thinkquest.orgVirtual Teachers
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