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Net gains for Schools OnLine

Schools OnLine, the country's grandest project to get schools exploring the Internet, will be wound up next month. Last week, at a contented rather than mournful gathering, teachers and industry partners came together to celebrate the project's success. Just two years after its inception, sponsored by the Department for Trade and Industry, it has been dubbed one of the bravest research projects into what the Internet has to offer schools.

With Pounds 2.5 million of industry sponsorship, and another Pounds 1 million from the DTI, 60 schools teamed up with industry partners to make forays into what might have been just ether. Before long, 90 schools with 580 teachers and 2,300 pupils were braving the phone bills and regularly using the Internet.

Apart from finding Internet gold - the nuggets of information they set out for - schools report learners becoming motivated, developing autonomy, gaining confidence and sharing with peers. One observer has suggested that these successful schools may be exceptional - outward-looking and self-selecting. Perhaps this is in the nature of pioneers.

Schools OnLine has a list of credits to match those of a movie. It was managed by computing firm ICL and the Ultralab research unit at Anglia Polytechnic University; it involved some 50 IT companies working in partnership with over 100 schools.

The findings squash a mainstream idea about getting schools connected - the business of plugging an optic-fibre cable into the head of a learner and expecting a learning outcome, as Professor Stephen Heppell, a project founder, puts it.

Stephen Heppell explains how the school reports all show the importance of a teacher's role in motivating, mediating, briefing and debriefing pupils - in fact much the same learning "model" that schools already operate.

What is perhaps new is how the Internet helps create communities that learn together. For example, a project run by the National Council for Educational Technology teamed a secondary school with its feeder primaries to bridge the transition between phases. Here the juniors could ask their friends how they were finding the big school and be sufficiently reassured. The school says it seems to have paid off, with the new intake settling in better than usual.

A project run from Sheffield Hallam University offered a place for schools to share experimental work, then pool and discuss results. The science education community they set out to build gave access to real scientists whom pupils could question by e-mail.

Similarly, Leicestershire's Comenius Centre, which ran the modern languages project, reports how teachers used Internet editions of foreign newspapers - stories about the death of Princess Diana were used to stimulate class work - while e-mail exchanges with French schools led to a particularly authentic dialogue between peers. If there was a downside, it was that French schools were less often wired up to the Net and had less curriculum space in which to experiment.

With the Government making plans for a National Grid for Learning, (already nicknamed "Nigel") and with the sun setting on Schools OnLine, it's useful that there is a stockpile of experience to feed into the current consultation.

Like the Allies carving up the world at Yalta, those keen to ensure that the borders are drawn in the right places will want to respond.

Copies of the DfEE document are available from 0845 6022260 or on the Internet at Responses are due by December 8 to Eve Trueman, DfEE, Tothill Street, SW1H 9NA or superhighways@dfee.

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