Make sure you know your Internet code

Jack Kenny

Jack Kenny tries to put your school on the right track when it comes to Internet access, and offers some guidance on what to look for

One way to look at the Internet is like the railways: you have the track; you have the trains. Makes you think of Railtrack does it?

First of all the track. Unfortunately, the track is not the same gauge. Railways sorted that out some time ago. However, in some places things are beginning to happen. James Simms, a teacher at Winton School in Bournemouth, part of the South West Grid, says: "Yes, we are on the broadbandI First thing you notice is how instant access is. Websites flow on and off the screen in the blink of an eye.

"Strangely enough, the students seem to pursue and remain on the educational sites instead of wandering into the usual dross. The main upside is the number of teachers in other curriculum areas who are more encouraged to take whole classes to the computer room. It really is a significant development. I would say equal to the difference between the modern six-lane motorway and the old single-lane country road."

Is that how it is in your school? There is a good chance that it isn't, especially if you are a primary school. Your bandwidth will be in the hands of the government's Regional Broadband Consortia which was described in the following terms in last year's Rothshild report: "The absence of a shared vision means that the regions are a patchwork quilt of varying standards, technical approaches and priorities. At the very simplest level this means that the RBC have not created a 'national grid' for learning within the school community. There is no clarity for the private sector in understanding the direction of connectivity in the future." They went on to recommend that the government should seek an alternative approach in the future.

So you have to hope for the best. What's all this going to cost your school? It's hard to say. If you're unlucky it could be around pound;18,000 a year. If you are in Telford or Denbighshire, it will be free for a time. If you are in Bournemouth around pound;10,000 a year. Shouldn't it be the same price across the UK?

There are more questions than answers. Is there the software that will benefit from higher bandwidth? Is a cable wired solution better than wireless? How do we ensure that students in rural areas are not disadvantaged? Does anyone have a coherent vision of where we are going?

Sadly the introduction of broadband to primary schools is going to move at a slower pace. That is a pity because the slow pace of the ISDN Internet can destroy concentration for some pupils who lose focus as they wait for pages to load. RM has introduced a new box, RM SmartCache. The box enables users to make better use of the bandwidth that they have already. Frequently used pages are simply saved into SmartCache. It also stores information on the way that the Internet is being used. Schools can see which sites are popular and monitor usage. RM claim that SmartCache gives a measurable increase in speed, is easy to manage and updates are done automatically.

What about the trains or the content that will move across the lines? Tim Clarke of RM is convinced that content, not the standard of a connection is the important issue. Peter Funnell, vice-principal of Suffolk College, has headed the college's research centre, exploring the value and application of online learning, he believes: "We are at the foothills of a major climb in understanding about online learning. Already there is evidence to suggest it can support social inclusiveness and economic regeneration, but it's not a panacea."

A great deal of work has been done on the NGFL site in the last year. The number of pages has doubled making it one of the biggest moderated education portals in the world. There is new design, re-structuring and re-labelling in the light of the feedback from focus groups. Finally, a new search engine should be faster and more accurate.

At BETT you will have the opportunity to see a number of content providers. It is not easy to evaluate such material on a busy BETT stand. You need to ask the right questions. Here are some suggestions:

* Can you evaluate the site over time?

* Can you tailor the material to your school?

* Does the site offer things you don't need?

* Will the site work well on the bandwidth that is in your school?

* Are the materials for teaching your pupils?

* What are the pedagogical implications?

* Is the material in harmony with the style of teaching and learning that takes place in your school?

* Is the pricing plan good value for money?

* How long do you have to sign up for?

* What plans do they have to update?

* Do they have teachers working for them?

* Will the site be central to the work in your school or peripheral?

* Will the content be one-off materials or whole courses?

* Is the presentation of the site attractive and coherent?

RM BETT stands: D50 amp; E50

BT BETT stands: D40 amp; H70

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Jack Kenny

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