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A brave new partnership

Chris Johnston visits two US states to see IBM's Reinventing Education programme in action.

Fifty of England's Beacon schools will soon be Wired for Learning as they become the first in Britain to get involved with IBM's Reinventing Education programme.

The scheme aims to raise the quality of teaching and learning by tackling school problems at their roots and using information and communications technology (ICT) as a lever for change. It operates in 21 areas in the US and in eight other countries, including Ireland, Italy and Brazil.

Reinventing Education was set up in 1994 by Lou Gerstner, who co-wrote a book of the same name, after he became IBM chairman in '93. The scheme funds various projects, including one to pioneer ways ICT can connect homes to schools.

Set up in nine schools in Charlotte, North Carolina, and the surrounding Mecklenburg urban area in 1997, the scheme focused on a campus, Governors' Village, that included four new schools: two elementaries (primary), one middle (ages 11 to 14) and one high school. IBM researchers worked with the schools' teachers and students to develop a package of Web-based communication and education tools - Wired for Learning.

Ann Clark, principal of Vance High and lead principal of Governors' Village, says the software was an attempt to tie parents and schools more closely because more parental involvement would lead to better schools. Every teacher has a page on the school's site and a personal email address allowing parents to get in touch. Ms Clark says parents now expect a rapid response to their messages, which can be time consuming but is better than playing "phone tag". She gets about 300 emails a day, 30 per cent from parents.

The school's website has a variety of applications, including an events calendar telling parents when report cards are distributed and an educational standards database to show expected achievements for students in each subject and year group. As well as informing parents of expected competencies, the site is linked to Instructional Planner, another Wired for Learning application that helps teachers plan lessons to meet the standards.

This latter application will be used by the beacon schools, which aim to raise standards in other schools by sharing good practice. The idea is that teachers will write model lesson plans using the Instructional Planner that other teachers can then use, accessing them via a national curriculum database. If the trial is successful, Wired for Learning will be available to all beacon schools. There will be more than 1,000 by September. IM is contributing more than pound;600,000.

Every classroom at Vance High has at least two computers with Internet access - there are more than 470 machines for the 2,000 students - and each pupil has an email address. Ms Clark says there is no doubt that the technology is helping to raise standards and improve parental contact with the school, but adds there is no substitute for face-to-face contact.

At the adjacent Nathaniel Alexander elementary, teachers post details of classwork on their web pages. Principal Nancy Hicks says half the school's parents access the site, where they learn about class activities from its curriculum details and so can discuss schoolwork and extend learning into the home.

The school's 200 computers, all with Net access, are used "100 per cent of the time" and even most five-year-olds use email. Ms Hicks says the technology has helped raise literacy levels and students learn how to evaluate online information. "There is no such thing as a single source of information anymore," she says.

IBM helped teachers at Nathaniel Alexander learn to use the software by assigning each a staff "buddy". Ms Hicks says the training also helped her 51 teachers learn to trust the technology.

The School District of Philadelphia has taken a different approach to training and used its Reinventing Education grant to improve teacher skills based on IBM's Continuous Practice Improvement model, whereby experienced teachers work in class with less experienced colleagues to pass on skills and knowledge.

Teachers at Barton Elementary, in a poor area of Philadelphia's northern suburbs, are using this approach. Principal Bill Lee says using computers in teaching is a big leap for many, but staff are overcoming their reservations. He says once teachers are shown the benefits of computers in classrooms they decide more money should be set aside to buy them.

The millions of dollars IBM has poured into Reinventing Learning was not done entirely out of philanthropy - the company has obtained valuable research to use for other products. But since schools also benefit from what is a true partnership that is only fair. It seems Britain's beacon schools have much to look forward to.

Beacon schools.

Governors' Village schools.

Continuous Practice Improvement.

IBM Reinventing Education.

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