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Pipe-dream put to the test

Cambridge schools are guinea pigs in a unique interactive trial. Reva Klein reports

The time will soon come when we will all be dependent on four vital utilities pumped into our homes. There will be gas, water and electricity and, according to Acorn's strategic marketing manager, Roger Broadie, "a big fat pipe bringing in information, words, music, everything".

According to Acorn, this is another technological fait accompli, so we had better look the thing in the face. And if Acorn's plans are realised, it will be in our faces, or rather our living rooms and classrooms, sooner rather than later.

Acorn is conducting its Cambridge Interactive TV Trial, which is introducing an interactive information network via a single-based system. It brings CD, television, radio and video transmissions, plus the Internet, all through one rather ordinary-looking black box into schools and homes. Eventually, the plan is to install it around the country and then the world as we know it.

The trial is a collaboration between Acorn's Online Media, Cambridge Cable, ICL and other companies, with content old and new being provided by Anglia TV, the BBC and ITN News, to name a few. Presently, the project involves 100 homes, eight primaries and two secondaries in the Cambridge area. In the next few months, another 150 homes will be connected to the network.

The system is simple to use and offers a service that cannot be accessed in any other single way. Say you are a media studies teacher wanting to look at television coverage of a current event from two different media sources. You can show today's most recent news item on the BBC, then show the same item as presented on ITN.

There is also a dedicated, pre-packaged education service for the formal and informal sectors, covering everything from early years to Open University, giving users access when they want it. In the current trial, a service called In Class is divided into key stages. Click on to History key stage 2 and you will be offered a range of relevant materials, including schools radio programmes.

Schools can also produce their own material, multimedia or otherwise, to put on the network. Homework assignments can be stored there so that parents can access them at home and help their children. Parents can also tap into resources that their children have seen at school.

One example of home-school interaction is given by Alastair Wells, a secondary teacher, parent of three primary-aged children and passionate advocate of the system. "Let's say you're teaching careers to a class of 30. You look at the RAF. But you're actually spending 30 minutes on control and discipline because only one child in the class is interested in the RAF. But if parents could sit at home with the child, using the careers materials that the school uses but focussing on specific interests, the child is getting real help through the choices in a targeted way."

He also cites the probability that a child has very restricted access to material at school because of demand on the computer system by other pupils. "For a child coming home having to write an essay on Macbeth, they have everything on the system at home that they have at school. So they call up specific scenes on a CD-Rom or track down a bit from an Open University lecture on the play, getting it all from one system."

Alastair Wells's Netherhall school in Cambridge is currently being wired into the system. As IT co-ordinator, he looks forward to his school authoring on the system - an option available to all schools.

At St Luke's Church of England Primary, one of the participating schools in the trial, a group of Year 6 pupils took me through the system. One minute we were watching Investigator Alligator, an American physics programme donated free for the trial, like all the other material. Then we listened to a story from BBC Schools Radio. Lucy Laughlin, a "nearly 11-year-old", liked the fact that it combined media so effortlessly. "This is kind of like TV and radio mixed and you can have any programme, any time."

Teachers at the school were less enthralled with some technical hitches that have cropped up so far. And a Year 6 teacher, Rachel Willans, bemoaned the variable quality of the donated material. "Children deserve more," she said, "But it's still in the beginning stages. The potential is great."

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