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Computers are the new supply

Teacher off sick? Not to worry, an online system can guide pupils. George Wright reports on a new workload trial

A computer system which can take lessons for absent staff and mark pupils' work is being trialled in a school taking part in the Government's workload project.

Once pupils are logged on to the system at Philip Morant technology college, Colchester, Essex,they are automatically assigned work based on on-line learning materials.

The software, developed by Microsoft and IT consultancy Ramesys, then monitors and records the individual's progress for their teacher.

Classes are held in the newly-built learning centre, housed in the school library, which has 188 Internet terminals. The centre is overseen by support staff, but all the learning takes place in cyberspace.

Headteacher Russell Moon, whose school is one of 32 Pathfinders funded by the Department for Education and Skills to find ways of reducing teacher workload, said that a week into the project the results were very promising.

He said: "This is a very exciting project and already in the early stages it has had a significant impact on teacher workload, raising standards for pupils and making better use of support staff.

"Over the next month or so we will continue to test the centre and see what it has to offer. I am confident that the results will be of significant interest to all schools."

The experiment is a major step towards the Government's vision of the school of the future, outlined early this year by the DfES.

It said computers would transform classrooms by offering pupils opportunities to "personalise their learning". At the same time, teachers would be "liberated from their traditional role as the fount of all knowledge".

However, evidence from a "virtual high school" in America shows the introduction of cyber-teachers must be done carefully.

Teachers in one district of Chicago felt their positions were under threat from the technology and insisted on an amendment to their contract, stating that the local education board "will not reduce the number of jobs as a result of changes emanating from curricular, instructional or technological innovations".

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