Pinstripe dynamo cuts an online dash

Dorothy Walker

Dorothy Walker talks to 2001 Teaching Award winner Keith Phipps and finds him as passionate about the Internet as he is about his pinstripe suits

They call him the Dapper Dynamo, and it is easy to see why. In his trademark pinstripe suit, Keith Phipps cuts a dashing figure in his classroom. And his energy knows no bounds - especially when it is directed towards the Internet.

"I am passionate about online teaching and learning," the head of geography at King Edward VI Camp Hill School for Boys in Birmingham openly admits.

After 27 years at the school, his recently-discovered passion has thrust Phipps into the national spotlight. At the 2001 Teaching Awards, he was named winner of the award for Most Creative Use of ICT. A notable factor in his success has been a remarkable Web project, in which he has invested much of his own time and money.

Phipps discovered the power of ICT only two years ago, when an Internet connection was installed in his classroom and he made his first foray on to the Net. For the former school librarian, it proved a revelation.

"I realised that the biggest library the world has ever known had just been delivered to my desk," he says. "And I saw how brilliant it would be for my students."

He decided that the way forward was to develop his own Web content to help students get the most from the Net. Phipps had no technical experience, but didn't see that as a problem. He immediately set off to buy a pile of computer magazines, trawled through them until he found what he was looking for, then set about teaching himself HTML, the programming language for building websites. "It looked very logical," he remembers. "As an amateur photographer, I used to create slideshows and a website looked just like an interactive slideshow to me."

Although the school had Web facilities, Phipps decided to create his own website, so he could experiment without affecting school resources. That meant funding the site from his own pocket, a decision which has cost around pound;2,500 to date. "I could see the potential," he explains, "so I was happy to follow the learning process through at my own expense."

His first move was to publish syllabus content for external exams. This saved pupils the expense of sending off for syllabuses and it meant that Phipps could signpost where a class was in the syllabus.

"I used the website with my A-level and GCSE students, saying: 'We began here, we ended there, and this is where we are going,'" he says. "From there it was only a short leap to publish all my teaching - schemes of work, curriculum maps and lesson content. I have literally opened up all my filing cabinets to the children, giving them all my resources."

Phipps spent many hours scouring the Web for good reference material, creating links to guide his pupils to the best sites. "They cover everything from glaciation to meteorology," he says, "and I have added a few words about why each is appropriate. My advice about what to do first on a site is to build a series of hotlinks related to key areas of your subject. That is the simplest way to start."

Around 80 per cent of Year 7 pupils at his school have unlimited access at home, thanks to the encouragement of Phipps, who heads the year. "When I meet new parents, I always say: 'If you are thinking about buying your son something beyond a computer, what about unlimited Internet access? If you are on the Internet for more than 25 minutes a day, it becomes economical.' I always share my view that the Internet is the greatest educational breakthrough since Caxton's printing press."

The use of email has reaped rich returns. When Phipps sets a homework assignment, he now agrees a time in the evening when he will be online, ready to answer students' questions. "This has enhanced our relationship," he says. "I like to receive emails, and so do they. But not everyone wants to ask a teacher, so they can also consult a peer mentor, one of my sixth-form geography class."

According to Phipps, emailed homework always arrives on time. "I involve students in building the content for the website and that motivates them," he says. "The other evening I asked each student to nominate their five best Channel Tunnel websites, and to email me the links. In class next day we worked out the top 10 links and added them to our website."

It was a student who accelerated the progress of Phipps' latest online development, an ambitious interactive atlas. "I spent a week putting together images along with key economic, social and population data," he explains. "The grand aim was to cover the world, but I managed Africa in a week, building each page in HTML.

"I was discussing this with a sixth-former when he suggested putting all the data in a database, which means that pages can be constructed very efficiently. We both began work and within two-and-a-half days we had developed an online atlas for 268 countries, with 150 essential facts about each one, plus the facility to compare up to 10 key indicators for five countries." No wonder Microsoft recently invited Phipps to lunch.

The site, at, now extends to 600 pages, and was recently selected as a National Grid for Learning resource.

His Teaching Award netted the school pound;15,000 in cash, plus ICT equipment worth pound;10,000. And it came as a complete surprise to the Dapper Dynamo, who hadn't realised he was doing anything exceptional. "I saw this just as a simple development of the Internet," he says. "But sometimes you can be driven by the need to do the ordinary - and then someone comes along and says it is extraordinary."

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Dorothy Walker

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