Credit where it's due

Dominic Savage and Ray Barker, of the British Educational Suppliers Association (BESA), outline the issues when spending your e-Learning Credits

You may think your fairy godmother is smiling on you at the beginning of this new year because your head should have told you that there is a new Standards Fund Grant to spend on digital content, the materials you use on your computers. For the average school this is between pound;2,000 and pound;3,000.

But no, it is your good friends at the Department for Education and Skills (DFES) who are responsible for this welcome surprise. The era of Curriculum Online is upon us, to be officially launched shortly with pound;50 million of new funds available for schools in England to spend on digital learning resources in the school year 20023. At the moment, all this money is being delivered via a specially ring-fenced Standards Fund Grant (schools have to account for spending it on softwarecontent), but at some time the DFES will move to electronic delivery, making the grants true e-Learning Credits. We are awaiting news of similar grant initiatives in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

If your school doesn't know its allocation, call your LEA. It will have had a DFES letter in July announcing the grant, and more recently received the formula to use to allocate the money to individual schools.

Where is this taking us? The Government rightly takes credit for pound;1.8 billion being invested in schools' ICT since 1997, most spent on hardware and infrastructure. Curriculum Online and its associated e-Learning Credits scheme is giving the money to schools to increase their range of software and content to get the technology used effectively. Curriculum Online is designed to give teachers easy access to a wide range of digital learning materials which they can use to support their teaching across the curriculum. The official documentation says "these materials will form a consistent, coherent and comprehensive educational service for teachers to find, compare, select and share relevant digital resources". Teachers are at the heart of this new initiative. The DFES maintains that, over time, Curriculum Online will help free teachers to do what they do best - teach - by making lesson planning easier and faster and by making it easier to tailor their lessons to meet the needs of individual pupils.

It is a decidedly bold and evolutionary initiative to maximise the investment already made in ICT infrastructure in schools and to ensure that the necessary step change in ICT happens more quickly. But why Curriculum Online? One answer would be to look at the recent Pew Internet and American Life Project report which comments: "Millions of teenagers use the internet for their schoolwork, but they say that educators often don't know how, don't want, or aren't able to use online tools to help them learn or enrich their study." Curriculum Online is certainly preparing schools for an online future, but fear not, e-Learning Credits are not just for online materials; they can be used for most of your favourite CD-Rom-based resources.

Resources will be on offer from accredited Curriculum Online suppliers, and you will have to spend your e-Learning Credits on these resources. Although there will be a Curriculum Online Portal offering a searchable database, you can still buy COL products in the traditional ways, choosing product from the huge range available, in line with the needs of your pupils.

Schools must make the most of the ring-fenced budget. Spend it wisely, but quickly! You need to demonstrate to Government that schools need even more content and encourage the budget to be even greater next year. It is only guaranteed for one year at the moment. And don't let anyone tell you that there is any lack of content out there. A recent Becta analysis (www.becta.org.uk) lists more than 2,400 approved software titles for the 5-16 national curriculum alone, the total list being substantially larger.

There will be a great deal of free material in the market, but it is not always the best for you or your pupils. The best educational software takes years to develop and is scaffolded by teachers' experience of pupils'

needs, classroom practice and instructional design. This costs money. If you choose free material to "save money", you will soon find your favourite, most trusted software will be gone as companies go out of business. The e-Learning Credits are the Government giving you the money so you can decide what is best for your class rather than what is free.

What's on offer?

* pound;50 million of new funds in 20023

* e-Learning Credits (eLCs) can only be spent on certified products and services and through Curriculum Online registered retailers

* The funding is ring-fenced

* This is in addition to the NGFL Standards Fund, 15 per cent of which is still allocated for the purchase of digital content

* Schools will receive between pound;2,000 and pound;3,000

* LEAs distribute the money

All Curriculum Online-certified products must be:

* Digital products. (A minimum of approximately 80 per cent of a product's price can be attributable to digital products, with up to 20 per cent being attributable to non-digital materials designed to support the classroom use of the product.)

* Specifically targeted at and tagged for use in the classroom in line with the Curriculum Online guidelines

* Appropriate for their end user's age and capabilities

You can buy most digital content with your eLCs except:

* Managed Learning Environments (MLEs)

* Integrated Learning Systems (ILSs) that are capable of integrating third-party content (self-contained ILSs are eligible)

* Tools and applications which are not education-specific

* Individual digital items with no specific educational context, eg a piece of text, an image, an animation, sound or video clip

To spend your e-Learning Credits:

* Order through catalogues

* Try out digital content at the annual BETT educational technology show, January 8-11, 2003

* Look at reviews in the educational press

* Search the database on the BESA website: www.besanet.org.uk

* Log on to company websites

* Find Curriculum Online: www.curriculumonline.gov.uk

You can find all BESA suppliers in the BESAbook free directory, or visit BESAnet, the one-stop source of the latest product and digital supplier information - www.besanet.org.uk

The British Educational Suppliers Association is at 20 Beaufort Court, Admirals Way, London E14 9XL.

Tel: 020 7537 4997

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