How often do you find that your lessons run out of time, leaving your students with half-finished activities or the need for further support? What if your students could go home, switch on their computer, go online and access the same materials they used in the classroom? Or what if they could find materials that can help reinforce the work they did in school? Information and communications technology offers a great way of strengthening the links between home and school and, as a result, many online services have sprung up promising to strengthen the bond.
But as Jane Mitra, an education adviser at the Parents Information Network (PIN), who has looked extensively at homeschool online services, notes:
"There are free services and there are subscription services. Sadly, parents get little support from schools when it comes to choosing an online service - basically because teachers don't have the time to look at the stuff. Fortunately a lot of good resources on the internet are free."
The free sites include BBC Learning, which offers learning materials, lesson plans, resources and articles for parents that cater for children of all ages. Channel 4's 4Learning site has a similar mix of resources.
GridClub is the DfES's website for children aged 7 to 11, offering activities, puzzles and games designed by teachers to cover the curriculum at key stage 2. GridClub is managed by 4Learning and the clubs are in a protected education website, Think.com, which has been developed by Oracle.
Think.com is designed to encourage online interaction and participation.
For example, teachers can use the service to create online tutorials or activities for their students.
Although there is a lot of free material on the internet, parents are prepared to pay for good content, says Jennie Martin, head of the BT Learning Centre, a new subscription service launched by BT. "The problem with the internet is that you have to wade through a confusing morass of stuff before you find what you want," she adds. "Our research has shown that people want to find relevant content quickly and easily and are prepared to pay for it."
The BT Learning Centre caters for a wide range of children, from pre-school to post-16, and has specific home pages for seven age ranges. At the heart of the BT Learning Centre is RM's Living Library, which offers millions of educational resources including materials for research, learning and revision. The service also includes access to free content and links to educational websites. The BT Learning Centre costs pound;3.99 a month, which gives subscribers access to Living Library plus a choice of two learning packages - these can be rotated. There is also a School Partnership Scheme whereby families that subscribe to The BT Learning Centre for more than three consecutive months can nominate a school of their choice to receive a pound;3 cheque.
Ed on the Web is aimed at children aged 3-11 and offers a mix of free and paid-for content catering for English, maths and science at key stages 1 and 2 as well as computer skills for younger pupils. The service costs home users pound;9.99 a year and schools between pound;99 and pound;169 per year, depending on the number of pupils.
"A lot of homeschool websites simply offer revision materials, but ours includes teaching points, examples and tasks. We also respond to individual emails," says Maggie Humphreys, co-founder of Ed on the Web. RM offers Living Library to home users for pound;2.50 per month, with a variable pricing model for schools. "It's difficult for parents to find the resources that teachers use in the classroom, but Living Library gives them access to many of them," says Gordon Nelson, RM's commercial manager.
The @School service costs pound;9.99 a quarter or pound;35.99 per year for home users, with variable pricing for schools. The service offers content that caters for key stage 1 and 2 pupils as well as children with special needs and early years. There are also resources and content for parents and teachers. Anglia Campus covers primary and secondary education and has more than 10,000 pages of learning resources. Some of these include animations, video and sound clips. The service costs home users pound;49 per year and prices are variable for schools.
Granada Learning's Primary Zone has differentiated educational activities for children aged 4 to 11 covering literacy, numeracy and science topics.
It costs home users pound;8.50 per year and schools pound;79 per year.
Spark Island supports children aged 3 to 11 in the core subjects of English, maths and science and costs pound;49 a year, while Einstein Online offers worksheets, online activities and a reporting system covering science, literacy and numeracy and costs pound;9.99 a month.
"The secret to all good online services to get the balance right," says Jennie Martin. She adds that we can expect homeschool services starting to offer more content for parents, such as providing online tutorials for using popular software packages. Jane Mitra's advice for anyone thinking of using an online service is simple: "Get your child to try it out. Children are well able to assess websites both for their relevance and their interest."
CHOOSING AN ONLINE SERVICE
The Parents Information Network (PIN) (www.pin.org.uk) offers lots of useful advice on educational websites, including reviews. Here is PIN's advice on questions to ask for anyone considering an online subscription service:
* Can I try the online service before I buy the subscription?
* What is the cancellation policy if the online service is not suitable for my child?
* Do the learning activities complement the work my child will be doing at school?
* Is there any parental support?
* How will I know that my child is learning what they are supposed to learn from the online activities?
* What is the depth and width of the content and how often is it updated?
* How differentiated are the activities?
* How much choice is there?
* In what format is the content? For instance, does it use sound or animation?
* Will we need a broadband link to get the best out it?
* Does my subscription give me access to all content?
* Are there any extra costs?
* Does it offer links to other educational sites?
* Does it offer an individual reply service?
www.bbc.co.uklearning www.btopenworld.com thelearningcentre www.channel4.comlearning www.edontheweb.com