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Breaking down cyberspace's final frontier

Sceptical about the safety of the Internet for education? Then look at SCETPioneer, the virtual classroom uniting Net activity in one package. Douglas Blane reports

The Internet has been compared to a vast library where knowledge is stored, but the books are shelved at random, there is no classification system and the librarian is an idiot who can't find the light switch.

The truth is better - and worse. Know what you want, and you can usually find it. But anyone seeking enlightenment on an unfamiliar topic may alight on a myriad of irrelevant, out-of-date, fictional, opinionated, pornographic or violent sites. The Net, some say, is no place for unsupervised pupils.

But if structure is imposed, and users, especially young ones, are shielded, the educational potential of the Net is enormous. Learners can study multimedia courses at their own pace, work through tutorials, take part in discussions, complete and submit assignments and obtain answers from the comfort of anywhere with a computer, at any time.

"We don't think it is good enough just to let learners loose on the Internet where there is no shape or learning model being applied," says Jackie Galbraith, director of learning at the Scottish Council for Educational Technology (SCET). "So we've developed SCETPioneer, a web-based learning environment designed to operate like a virtual classroom."

SCETPioneer has been used to host conferences, deliver further education courses and support imaginative projects like the recent re-negotiation of the Treaty of Versailles, at the climax of which pupils at over 40 Scottish secondary schools, a number in England and Wales and one in India, collaborted online to redraw the map of Europe. Current users of SCETPioneer include Glasgow's FE colleges, the Glasgow Development Agency and the British Council, and Galbraith believes schools will become major future users.

"Schools can already do video-conferencing and use email and the Internet but it's all separate. What Pioneer does is bring email, forums, notebooks, a diary, a whiteboard and various other tools together in one easy-to-use environment that recreates the feel of a classroom. It's a shell that can be adapted for any type of lesson and any subject matter."

Secondary school projects in geography and environmental studies are currently being developed with SCETPioneer, as is a multidisciplinary initiative in an inner-city school aimed at enticing demotivated 12- and 13-year-olds back into learning. And the content of educational CDs aimed at older children in subjects like business studies, media studies and languages are also being redesigned for SCETPioneer.

There has been much interest from isolated areas like the Highlands, where schools are small, access to educational material is problematic and the idea of sharing resources is attractive. Primaries are also expressing interest and SCET is developing a version of Pioneer for younger children.

"We want to get the teachers involved and try out lots of ideas," says Galbraith, "because they understand the needs of their learners better than anybody else. We want them to think about the possibilities of SCETPioneer and for them to drive the learning models that go through it."

For information on SCETPioneer contact Brian Dickson, Tel: 0141 337 5032BETT stand: F54SN47

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