Fee and easy lessons

Yolanda Brooks and a team of TES reviewers test the worth of subscription websites.

Why you should pay for access to a website when there are millions available free? Why waste your share of the ICT budget when there are other things you can spend your money on? Well, the question is now largely academic as the Department for Education and Skills has created the e-Learning Credit scheme requiring schools to spend money on some form of educational digital content. Fifty million pounds is available for schools in England to spend over the next academic year on CD-Roms and online content accredited through Curriculum Online (www.dfes.gov.ukcurriculumonline). On average, the ring-fenced e-Learning Credits, which will be delivered through the Standards Fund, are worth between pound;2,000 and pound;3,000 per school.

Subscription websites save you time. Trying to find something on the internet that's relevant to the curriculum and comes from a reliable source isn't always easy. With subscription websites you should have fewer qualms about the content and be assured that you will receive up-dated material. The providers are often dedicated to the school market, so everything they offer will be age-specific and come loaded with curriculum pointers.

Before signing up with a provider: z Make sure you have a trial run of the site. Most offer at least a week's free access.

* Find out how often the content is updated and how they let you know about new information on the site.

* Is there is a home access service for pupils?

* Is it easy to access the material you are interested in?

* Are the teaching notes and activities really useful?

* What technical support is available? z Is there adequate advice on using the site for lessons?

* Are there activities that children can do alone or will you need to supervise every session? As well as testing out the site before you subscribe, it is worth getting a few pupils to try it out as well.

You also need to decide whether you want a website for reference or heavy-duty content. Some general content websites do have reference sections, but the reference-only sites are hard to beat for thoroughness. Reference websites are a great resource if you want students to get to grips with the workings of the internet, but want to restrict their access to its whackier and seedier outposts. Content websites are the best bet to supplement classroom-based work.

While you may want the site to look engaging, make sure your network can cope with the graphics - long download times are a drag. And then, of course, there's the price. There is lots of competition, so prices for most services aren't as high as you might expect. As one of our reviewers commented: "A year's subscription is often equal to the cost of a set of textbooks."

Other recommended sites include: @school (early years and primary)www@school.co.uk English Teaching Resources

www.fret.co.uk Oxford Reference Online

www.oxfordreference.com.

The websites were reviewed by John Dabell, Harry Dodds, Anthony Moore, Janet Murray and Julie Yaxley

TITLE

Actis

Secondary

www.mathsonline.co.uk

Tel: 0115 944 8330

www.actis.co.uk

Email: welcome@actis.co.uk

Price: from pound;225 per year for the maths service, excluding VAT

TITLE

Britannica

Secondary

www.britannica.co.uk

Tel: 0845 075 7000

Email: enqbol@britannica.co.uk

Price: from pound;399 a year, excluding VAT

CONTENT

Has a wealthy bank of materials, including interactive games, computer simulations, and worksheets. The Logo activities are okay and there's a huge choice of games covering variety of areas, including number, alegbra and data handling. It would be helpful, though, if the lesson plans were linked to the National Numeracy Strategy.

DESIGN

Lots of Flash graphics, but not the sleekest of sites. However, there's not too much clutter.

EASE OF USE

It's not immediately clear from the home page what materials the site has to offer, but it is user-friendly for teachers and pupils.

SPECIAL FEATURES

Offers content specifically geared for use with whiteboards. The site has an automatic worksheet creation tool. Actis also produces dedicated websites for English, history, geography, science and also for primary schools.

VERDICT

Mathsonline has lots of respected curriculum-linked resources for secondary students, but it's also a useful drop-in site for able KS2 students. The site offers good value for money and is expanding all the time.

TITLE

Britannica

Secondary

www.britannica.co.uk

Tel: 0845 075 7000

Email: enqbol@britannica.co.uk

Price: from pound;399 a year, excluding VAT

CONTENT

Has content from three "Encyclopaedia Britannicas", including the adult version; a dictionary and thesaurus; an alphabetical browse facility, and selected magazine articles. A search brings up a good range of multimedia files and an interesting selection of related materials. The images are well chosen and informative. The site also has a useful selection of web links.

DESIGN

Crisp and easy on the eye. No fancy graphics or cartoon characters.

EASE OF USE

Tap in a word, phrase or question and you get a response in seconds, so there is no problem with fiddly navigation. The search results are displayed according to the source and there is an adequate description of each search result to save you opening up irrelevant search results. All the content options can be accessed from the home page.

SPECIAL FEATURES

There are some useful word games and activities with supporting teacher materials.

VERDICT

Britannica is easy to navigate, has excellent material and good search results. Despite the American bias, it is a great research tool.

TITLE

Einsteinonline

Primary

www.einsteinonline.co.uk

Tel: 020 8302 4884

Email: info@einsteinonline.co.uk

Price: standard package from pound;75 (1-30 pupils) per year, excluding VAT

CONTENT

Einsteinonline is wedded to the national curriculum and the literacy and numeracy strategies. It covers the core KS1 and KS2 subjects, but there is no great depth to the activities. The content is geared towards revision rather than new learning opportunities. DESIGN

Attractive and colourful with a clear layout. Cartoon characters help to keep the whole thing looking jolly.

EASE OF USE

Younger children will need support, but older children should be able to use it independently.

SPECIAL FEATURES

Personalised study units are created for individual pupils through the Learn to Succeed programme. Each child has their own daily schedule and teachers don't have to worry about marking or lesson planning. There are also regular tests, with the scores appearing the next day.

VERDICT

Einsteinonline is educationally sound, but feels more like a homework site that will appeal to pushy parents.

TITLE

Espresso

Primary and secondary

www.espresso.co.uk

Tel: 0800 0345 200

Email: info@espresso.co.uk

Price: From pound;2,495 for primary installation of Espresso box and satellite. Subscription rates are pound;6 per pupil, per year. Box, satellite and installation for secondary schools is pound;3,495. The subscription rates start at pound;3 per pupil per year.

CONTENT

News items from television broadcasts, stored web pages and interactive exercises. The site focuses on literacy, numeracy and science for primary, and French and citizenship for secondary pupils, although there is limited coverage of other subjects. It runs like a fast CD-Rom, with lots of sound, still and moving images, and sophisticated graphics.

DESIGN

Distinctive, busy and vibrant design with lots of movement.

EASE OF USE

Easy to get around and find what you want and there are no irritatingly slow downloading times.

SPECIAL FEATURES

A broadband service that isn't dependent on web links. The content is beamed weekly (monthly for secondary schools) to the school's own satellite, which is connected to the Espresso server, which in turn is linked to the school's network. It may cost more than the others but, strictly speaking, it's not a website. The content is immediately available with no need for extra online costs.

VERDICT

Espresso is an intelligently integrated package that offers visually stimulating and topical resources that are interactive and relevant to the curriculum.

TITLE

Learn premium

Primary and secondary

www.learn.co.ukpremium

Tel: 020 7886 98164057

Email: premium@learn.co.uk

Price: primary rates from pound;235 (up to 150 pupils); secondary rates from pound;881.25 (up to 500 pupils), including VAT

CONTENT

Very comprehensive - arranged by subject and by key stage. Index covers KS1 to AS-level, in maths, English, science, geography design and technology, history German, citizenship, literacy and numeracy. Also has lesson packs based, in part, on the Guardian newspaper. Objectives are clearly stated at beginning of each unit.

DESIGN

The openingindex page is cluttered but functional. There is consistent visual style and colour-coding.

EASE OF USE

This is a straightforward site. Navigation is good and there's a display to show how far you've drilled down.

SPECIAL FEATURES

Whiteboard materials for maths and a daily news service for nine to 13-year-olds, and geography video lessons.

VERDICT

Learn Premium is educationally sound and there's plenty of good practice, and interactivity, as well as a wealth of material for students and teachers. This is a rich resource, intelligently designed, practical, sensible and authoritative. This is a good quality site with well-pitched information.

TITLE

Living library

Primary and secondary

http:livlib.eduweb.co.uk

Tel:0870 9200 200

www.rm.com

Email: salesdesk@rm.com

Price: primary from pound;195 (up to 99 pupils); secondary subscription rates from pound;396 (up to 600 pupils), excluding VAT

CONTENT

A good range of content. The "collections" section is a good one to start with as it contains nine primary and 11 secondary sections, which includes the core subjects. However, you may find the amount of information limited, especially if searching for multimedia content.

DESIGN

Simple, unfussy design, but a few animations might make it more appealing to children.

EASE OF USE

The site is split into two areas for primary and secondary, but once in a section there is no further differentiation by age group. There is clear navigation allowing children from KS2 upwards to use it by themselves, after a teacher demonstration. Non-ICT teachers and secondary students will find the "help" section invaluable.

SPECIAL FEATURES

The "teacher tips" section offers ideas on how to integrate Living Library into lessons, along with pupil activities.

VERDICT

Living Library could be used with top primary pupils, but secondary school students may lose interest.

TITLE

Primary zone

Primary

www.primary-zone.com

Tel: 0161 827 2887

www.granada-learning.com

Email: info@granada-learning.com

Price: pound;79 per year, including VAT

CONTENT

Features a comprehensive bank of interactive games covering the core subjects of literacy, numeracy and science. Teachers can select the activities and there is lots of differentiated material. Its one drawback is the lack of feedback. Children get answers correct by trial and error and complete exercises without knowing where they are going wrong.

DESIGN

Eye-catching, child-friendly graphics and a colourful layout.

EASE OF USE

Navigation is tricky at first, but fine once you get going. Lots of click-and-drag required, so some accuracy with the mouse is required.

SPECIAL FEATURES

Suggests related activities that can be carried out offline. The "teacher" set-up allows you to select activities. Pupil self-assessment cuts down on marking.

VERDICT

Primary Zone offers a comprehensive, well thought out site, providing extensive content to support teaching in the core subjects. An exciting and dynamic interactive resource.

TITLE

Proquest learning

Secondary

http:literature.proquestlearning.co.uk

Tel: 01223 271 420

www.proquestlearning.co.uk

Email: learning@proquest.co.uk

Price: literature site pound;495 (up to 16 users); pound;550 for site licence, excluding VAT

CONTENT

The literature site has a heavy poetry bias, but there are hundreds of full poetry, prose and drama texts from Medieval times through to the 20th century. The texts are supplemented with essays and articles, biographies, reviews, and audio recordings.

DESIGN

Clean and basic layout. The whole look is restrained and not really student-oriented.

EASE OF USE

The pages are clearly organised and the target age group should have no problems with navigation.

SPECIAL FEATURES

"Poets on screen" features video clips of poets reciting modern and classic poetry. There is a GCSE Exam Board List, which lets pupils search for links matched to their exam board's set books. Proquest also offers a separate history site and news service with archived national and regional newspaper content.

VERDICT

Proquest is not particularly interactive, but it offers high quality if narrowly focused resources that encourage students to be independent learners. Compared to other sites, though, it is very expensive.

Log in or register for FREE to continue reading.

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you