Adrian Thomas, headteacher at Milton Manor school in Crawley says his school's software purchasing practice has radically changed: "We no longer buy CD-Roms. We now get our software delivered online." Milton Manor uses Espresso Productions' service, which delivers content to schools via satellite. It also uses The Living Library Internet resource service from RM. The school heads a new trend in the educational software market, with traditional forms of software like CD-Roms being joined by online media. What makes the online platforms so different are the challenges and possibilities they bring to teachers and students.
However, with all the noise made about the National Grid for Learning and online, it's easy to think that the silver disk's days are numbered. But not so, says Ray Fleming, RM's secondary schools business manager: "CD-Roms are still thriving because people are comfortable with them and you don't have to connect them to anything. The second reason is that information on the Internet can be transient, unstructured and not always free."
David Bennett, director of REM, a software publisher and distributor, says:
"If you're using online materials with a class of 30, you don't want it crashing on you. Also, a lot of teachers are not confident about using the Internet." However, it seems that schools are leapfrogging over CD-Rom's successor - the DVD-Rom.
Many believe that the bond between the Net and CD-Rom will strengthen: "The Web is wonderful for upgrading and patches (fixes)," says John Crick, director of Crick Software. "It's also useful for providing technical support and answering FAQs (frequently asked questions)." Many CD-Rom titles offer online support or materials, but David Burrows, head of Microsoft Education, says: "I don't think many people are using the Web for upgrading. I don't think there's a strong link between the CD and the Web yet." Part of the reason is that many schools still don't have high-speed broadband links to the Internet. Schools within LEAs such as Staffordshire and Telford and Wrekin do have broadband connections, and various broadband consortia are bringing broadband to an increasing number of schools, but progress is slow on a national scale.
There are already a number of educational online services flourishing, such as RM's Living Library, Espresso and Granada Learning's Primary Zone, which show that schools are prepared to pay for software on a subscription basis. "People will subscribe if the service is easy to get, addresses the needs of the teacher and learner, and is cost-effective," says Nigel Ward, managing director of the Granada Learning Group. "It works if you keep it simple."
Malcolm Rushton, deputy head and IT co-ordinator at Alexandra Junior School in Stoke-on-Trent, also subscribes to Espresso: "What's great about online delivery is that the material is constantly updated, unlike a CD-Rom, which soon goes out-of-date." He adds that connectivity problems can be overcome by having materials downloaded on to the school server and then distributing them on the school's intranet.
Yet if schools are slowly getting used to paying for software on subscription, what about a pay-as-you-go model? Microsoft's Burrows says:
"Schools are not used to this concept. The last time schools used a similar system was with photocopiers and many people got their fingers burnt. So there may be some reluctance from headteachers with long memories."
Brian Kerslake, partner of Topologika Software, adds: "It's hard enough getting payment for purchases today. Can you imagine the problems if we introduced a system like that?" While Paul Litherland, Two-Can's sales and marketing director, says: "I have already simplified our licensing system, because it used to be confusing for schools."
However, others beg to differ. "We already pay this way for telephone and gas, so it doesn't take a massive leap of imagination to do the same for software," says Espresso's managing director Lewis Bronze. And RM's Fleming says technology is not a problem in establishing a pay-as-you-go system. As if to underline this point, Tag Learning plans to launch a new pay-as-you-go service this autumn with Media Blender, a multimedia authoring tool.
Tony Wheeler, Tag Learning's creative director, does not like the way the Internet is being used for software development: "The Web is supposed to be two-way and participatory. The Internet is not a television; it's more like a telephone and unless you say something, it's not a conversation. We are also in danger of forgetting that the best teaching and learning resources are owned and developed by teachers and learners themselves." Online services such as Tag Teachernet and Becta's Virtual Teacher Centre (VTC), allow teachers to exchange ideas and resources.
Software will increasingly become available on a cross-platform basis, including television, CD-Rom and online, says Paul Ashton, commissioning editor for 4Learning. He adds that schools' resources will also be available on-demand: "Teachers and learners will be able to get hold of materials when it suits them."
The line between broadcasting and software publishing is already blurring, and Frank Flynn, BBC controller for children's education, says: "We already have a number of online services like Bytesize and Revisewise, and whether we can have even more will depend on what the government decides and the roll-out of broadband."
Launching new software products and services requires teachers who are competent to assess them, and opinion is divided on this. Granada Learning's Ward says some teachers now have 10 years experience of using ICT and so are more critical about software. "We welcome the fact that teachers are becoming more demanding, because teachers who are more informed, more highly trained and more discerning will demand even better software and that's great."
Alexandra Junior School's Rushton says NOF training is helping staff to start thinking about software, but Mike Aston, principal consultant at the advisory unit, Computers in Education, says: "I have heard complaints from teachers on NOF programmes which have simply talked about software. That's extraordinary. I've also heard of teachers being asked to use software in lessons when it was inappropriate to do so. This generates negative feelings."
Kitemarking is often seen as a good way of helping teachers choose good software, but there are opponents. "We don't kitemark books, so why do it with software?" asks Granada's Ward. Robin Drewitt, chair of the Educational Software Publishers Association (ESPA) and director of AVP software, adds: "I have more faith in teachers and in the market. Most of our software is available on approval and if it doesn't come up to scratch, it doesn't sell."
Many teachers are not impressed with glitzy multimedia and shallow content, although the impact of computer games is having an effect on how educational software looks these days. One worrying trend (particularly for software companies) is the attitude of some schools to software - nowadays they want it to be free. Some lay the blame at the door of Tesco's Computers for Schools scheme, now managed by RM. "No free software scheme has helped the software industry in the long term as it makes people unwilling to buy software," claims ESPA's Drewitt. "Those who run these schemes neither care nor understand about the environment in which people who make educational software exist."
Granada's Ward disagrees: "Most people are sophisticated and understand how these schemes work. When you get something on a special offer, it doesn't devalue the brand. However, I have heard misgivings about how the scheme is currently being managed." Software companies certainly report an increase in purchases from schools, although many believe that the 15 per cent of NGFL funding allocated to software has not been policed well enough.
The demands on software developers have changed considerably, says James Bayliss, marketing director of Sherston Software: "The days when you could produce lots of cross-curricular titles have gone and that's disappointing from a developer's point of view." Teachers want software that is highly focused on basic skills like literacy and numeracy.
The irony is that as teachers become more confident and competent about choosing software, they may also become increasingly conservative:
"Software should be creative, interactive and exciting - it's not just about putting facts in front of people," asserts Computers In Education's Mike Aston.
George Cole is a freelance journalist and a former teacher Useful websites
4Learning: www.4learning.co.ukTag Learning: www.taglearning.comTwo-can
Publishing: www.two-canpublishing.comThe Advisory Unit: www.advisory-unit.org.ukAVPSoftware: www.avp.co.uk
BBCEducation: www.bbc.co.ukeducationBecta: www.becta.org.ukESPA: www.besanet.org.uk RM: www.rm.comCrick Software: www.cricksoft.comEspresso:
www.espresso.co.ukMicrosoft: www.microsoft.comREM: www.r-e-m.co.ukSherston
Software: www.sherston.co.ukGSP:www.gsp.ccGranada Learning: