Do networks really make a contribution to teaching and learning? Ten years ago when school networks were primarily concerned with sharing scarce hardware devices such as large disk drives and printers the answer was probably no. The shift to sharing software programs and information across the network means the answer is now yes.
Recent developments in management software allow networks and the applications they run to be customised. The new range of interactions possible between teachers and pupils promises to make the contribution of the network even more positive. This also has implications for training, as what appears on each screen can be controlled by a trainer. An "out of the box" network is unlikely to suit every school or teaching style - so the prospect of utility software that allows in-house customisation is an important development.
While competent network managers have always been able to customise their own network, for many this has been mission impossible: more complex customisation has become the preserve of the manufacturer producing "turnkey" systems. Good examples are RM's "starting grid" versions of full specification applications such as Word and Excel designed for primary school children.
Some network operating systems, such as the Tiny Network Manager, offer a facility to design the desktop for individuals and groups offering only those applications that are needed for each session. Ranger 2 network software from Clifton Reed takes customisation a step further, allowing customisation within each application. Customising applications in this way helps keep pupils "on task". There can be no wandering off to fiddle with Paint software when it's not present on the screen. Strategies such as removing the spell-checker - the English equivalent of confiscating the calculator in maths - are also possible.
Another option to being in control of what pupils can do, is to be able to see what they are up to on-screen. What networks provide is communication, so it's no surprise that when machines are connected it's possible for the teacher to play Big Brother and look at pupils' screens remotely. This is also useful for in-house training. All that's needed is some additional utility software such as the Tiny Network Manager or Net Op School from Danware both of which provide a range of features, for example allowing the teacher to monitor pupil activity and intervene if necessary. It is possible to intervene by sitting down at the same machine and working through the task with the pupil. Doing this with all the pupils is a little more difficult unless you use the network, and one of the software packages examined, to help you. It may be even more attractive to stay in the staffroom and, using remote monitoring, help the whole class get to grips with their computer-based work at the same time.
As networks become the systems of choice in schools, there is a need to focus on managing pupils and their learning rather than devices and applications. Utility software that enables inexperienced network managers, and ordinary classroom teachers, to tailor the school system will be an essential part of the school software library. Even good "off the shelf" networks can only meet 80 per cent of users' needs. As network utility software matures it will help schools get a closer fit between the network and the educational purpose.
This is a product from Danware, a Danish software house, which attempts to turn the teacherpupil relationship into an on-screen experience and is used by both RMand Tiny. NetOp School allows the teacher to demonstrate the use of a software application on each pupil's screen turning the network into a distributed, interactive blackboard. The software also provides the teacher with a remote control facility to provide on-screen guidance for individual pupils. By setting up chat sessions the teacher can also provide on-screen text guidance when required. Utilities for starting applications on pupils' machines, as well as transferring files to other network users, are also part of the package.
NetOp School works with any Windowns machines from 386 upwards and uses standard network protocols to communicate with network stations.
Teacher module and 20 student modules costs pound;500 (volume prices available on request). Richmond Systems (tel: 01428 641 616) www.richmondsys.co.uk Ranger 2
Control has always been a major feature of networks. Ranger 2, a set of utilities from Clifton Reed, aims to give the school network manager all the control needed to be confident that pupils are not making frivolous changes to the network station desktop or surfing those undesirable sites on the net. It operates on the principle of denying pupils access to services and applications.
The use of the software is straightforward, operating through a Window-type menu system. Four utilities are included: Windows Ranger allows desktop applications, and features offered within them, to be configured for each group of pupils; LAN Ranger can be used to limit the number of users accessing a particular software package if the school only has a limited number of licences; Ranger Account Manager allows easier creation and management of user accounts, often a time-consuming operation for Windows NT network managers; and Web Ranger allows network managers to restrict web access based on website and time, and can be used to set up a charging system for web access. Taken together, these are a powerful set of network utilities that will reduce the time taken to manage the school network.
Ranger 2 costs pound;49 (exc VAT) for a single copy, and pound;999 for up to 50 users. There is a fixed price of pound;500 for installations in primary and middle schools with an annual support fee of pound;125 Clifton Reed (tel: 01483 741700) Tiny Network Manager
PC networks in schools have been dominated by RM for over a decade. However, Tiny Computers, with version two of its Tiny Network Manager, is aiming to mount a challenge. Based on Windows NT, the network delivers all the expected functions. Setting up users and groups and allocating software applications to them is done through a straightforward set of on-screen menus.
As well as providing network management, the Tiny Network Manager also provides a range of networked teaching tools which differentiate it from the rest of the pack and provide the teacher with the ability to view pupils' screens, wherever they are on the network, and also take over their activities, if necessary, to help them learn about the application in use. The teacher can also send his or her screen to all pupils in the class to demonstrate a particular point and send text communications to other users on the network. The Tiny network also includes a utility to launch the same program on all pupils' screens at once.
Schools investing in a Tiny network are encouraged to supply Tiny with a list of current software licences and master disks. Tiny can then build the network to the specification required. The Tiny package comes with the option of remote access by Tiny experts (through a modem or ISDN connection) to help with management if required, and training for teaching staff and the network manager can also be included.
Tiny Network manager servers are priced from pound;4,699 (exc VAT) Tiny computers (tel: 01293 821333821555) Les Watson is Dean of Learning and Information Services at Cheltenham and Gloucester College of Higher Education