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Gore nails his colours to the Dashboard

A new scheme in the US could change the way schools, parents and town halls communicate, writes Marc Sealey

Dashboard is one of four initiatives, all related, which were announced this summer in the United States by Vice-President Al Gore. They are aimed at bridging the perceived divide between home and school. Using "push" technology, whereby the Internet is treated as a broadcast medium delivering relevant information to people's desktops, Dashboard will enable parents and students with a standard computer in the home to log on to the Internet in the usual way. The difference is that data from the school or district (the equivalent of a British local education authority) will be delivered to the home via a channel specially designated for the purpose. It is the equivalent of a British local chief education officer or headteacher being able to communicate directly with parents or pupils.

Data broadcast on the channel will cover a wide range: daily administrative updates for the local bureaucracy; examination, test and routine assignment marks and individualised performance measures for teachers and parents; and, for pupils, supplementary material and details of a particular day or week's class or homework. Typically, Dashboard would allow discussion among families as well as between families and the school, on, for example, reading assignments. A sick child who has missed work while absent would be able to catch up fairly easily.

One of the strengths of the scheme, it is hoped, is the simplicity and straightforwardness of the customised software. Individuals would only be allowed access to appropriate information - their log-ons would determine which files they could call up.

Dashboard will employ dedicated software such as Marimba's Castanet Tuner or customised offshoots and a conventional Web browser. Users can call up only such material as the school (in this case) decides to make available in much the same way as they select television or radio channels.

When new information is added to a channel, the software automatically retrieves it and saves it on the user's computer in accordance with such settings as frequency and quantity that the user specifies.

It is possible to use this material interactively. Members of the team at Netscape, one of a number of software firms involved in the Dashboard project, have spoken enthusiastically about the importance of interactivity. Although this experiment relies heavily on the transmission of content, they say, it is just as valid to see Dashboard as a way of using a variety of appropriate network technologies to link different communities with particular interests and common concerns.

Vice-President Gore is well- known for championing such causes. He has worked with a group of industry figures to promote information technology in education; in the case of Dashboard those involved include Marc Andreessen, Netscape's co-founder, Kim Polese, founder of Marimba, and staff from Cybernautics, Yahoo!, Spectrum Holobyte and NetSchools. They have been working in collaboration with a number of schools in the San Francisco area. Some of the country's leading graduate schools of education (Vanderbilt University's Peabody School, the University of Minnesota, Bank Street College, and Columbia Teachers College) are also involved. Their endorsement and the active support of the US Department of Education's Partnership for Family Involvement in Education in Washington DC should help to ensure that the project has credibility and clout. Starting this autumn, new ways will be sought to train teachers about family involvement, beginning with a national teleconference.

This, too, will be led by the Vice-President, who used the sixth Annual Family Re-Union Conference in Nashville this summer to announce the Dashboard project. Aware of the public's concern at perceived gaps between students, parents and teachers, Gore explained that Dashboard is part of the Clinton administration's plans to connect schools with their families via the Internet. "All of us must make it our journey . . . to reconnect America's classrooms to America's living rooms," said Gore. "There's so much we can do to revitalise our schools, invigorate our students, and integrate parents into their children's learning. "

It is also hoped that Dashboard will have two positive side-effects, both for those involved and for the nation's level of computer literacy: that it will reach families other than those middle-class households whose members are already predisposed towards using computers; and that it will educate adults in the use of technology and telecommunications.

The initiative comes at a time when there is concern at the perceived gap between home and school - 10 per cent of all children in the US are withdrawn from state schools to be taught at home (see page 18); the debates about standards and ways in which the family can participate to students' advantage are every bit as vigorous in the US as they are in Britain.

At the same Nashville conference, Gore also released the results of a survey asking parents about their involvement in their children's education. The survey showed that an overwhelming majority - nearly 80 per cent - believe that they and teachers should learn more about how they can be effectively involved in their child's education.

Here, it seems, might be a way to do just this.

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