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A new hi-tech battleground

A court ruling in Texas could add to British schools' difficulties giving pupils space online

ONLY A small fraction of schools appear to be on track to provide pupils with the online learning spaces that the Government has promised by next year.

Labour is spending pound;40million on "learning platforms" for school computer networks, which allow pupils, teachers and parents to access curriculum resources, discuss, submit and assess work, and even chat online at any time.

Progress has been slow in many schools - and a court case in the United States could jeopardise further work. The Government has promised that every pupil will have an online space to store work on a school network by 2008.

Last week Alan Johnson, Education Secretary, said he wanted parents to be able to access secure websites where they could see progress reports for their pupils and communicate directly with teachers. He announced he would be setting up a strategy group to look at the best ways to implement such technology.

However, it will be a challenging task. A PriceWaterhouseCoopers study showed only 15 per cent of schools use ICT well.

Brian Durrant, chief executive of the London Grid for Learning, a grouping of the city's local authorities, estimated that 30 per cent of London's schools were ready to meet the 2008 target, but fewer than 10 per cent were on track elsewhere in the country.

To add to the difficulties, Blackboard, a Washington-based technology company, has claimed ownership of important elements of the learning platforms. It has successfully patented some of the concepts and last month it embarked on a court case in Texas to sue a rival provider, Desire2Learn.

Critics attacked the patent decisions and said they gave Blackboard a monopoly over a range of school network technology.

Becta, the official body responsible for school technology, has completed an extensive testing process and announced its list of preferred suppliers of school learning platforms for Britain.

Those companies will watch the Texas case and wait to see if they will be forced out of the market.

Schools already making successful use of learning platforms include Gumley House convent school in Hounslow, west London, which uses the Digitalbrain system.

Andrew Macdonald-Brown, Gumley's assistant head, said that when he logged on to the learning platforms in the evening, he would normally see at least two or three of his pupils online, discussing progress on their latest assignments and posting drafts. One had filed a project from home at 1.40am.

Dorothea Blackledge, aged 14, said she enjoyed using Gumley House's learning platform to chat to her friends about their work. "But if I want to talk about what we're doing at the weekend, I go on to MSN," she said.


Taking a Pre-U turn

First class jetsetters have armrest buttons to summon a flight attendant with another Martini, hospital patients have bell pulls above their beds - and now pupils have a discreet way to ask for their teacher's help.

Rather than risk their classmates' ridicule by waving their hand in the air, Qwizdom's handheld voting remote, the Q4 (pound;2,198 plus VAT for set of 32 with software), features a discreet teacher call button.

Angela Grant, from Monifieth high school in Scotland, said the remote allowed pupils to express opinions on controversial subjects which they might not have the courage to voice.

Poison pen letters

Podcasting may not revolutionise learning, but it is a popular way to enthuse pupils. And it is not just teachers podcasting lessons.

Increasingly, pupils are delivering their coursework by audio or video podcast. Why use diagrams to document a physics experiment, when you can film it, attach a voice-over and upload it? Softease is launching its Podium software (Pounds 250 for site licence), which claims to make podcasting easier.

Fighting for physics

Just the thing for navigating complicated environs like your school: a digital assistant with built-in handheld global positioning system. Fujitsu Siemens has launched its first purpose-built educational digital assistant (pound;399 incl insurance), featuring a camera and built-in authoring software.

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