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Street-wise surfers

Exeter University uses telephone lines to help teachers develop their IT and curriculum skills, writes Niki Davis. The wonderful enthusiasm from colleagues and friends who have successfully "surfed" the Internet system of international computer networks can be depressing to other surfers who have suffered disorientation amid the volume and confusion of information.

One response to this additional responsibility of guiding students through today's jungle of information and scientific discoveries is a benign blocking of access for the students' own good, of course! Today's teachers are beset like those early churchmen who forbade translation of the Bible from Greek and Hebrew in case it was misinterpreted by the common man.

But the communications revolution offers effective new ways for external trainers (miles away) to support teachers in their own schools. And multimedia using computers to exploit text, graphics, moving video and sound is playing a major part.

Educational "mentors", available in schools via desktop-conferencing, can help develop the overview required for teachers to become facilitators and guides. Teachers no longer need to travel for this kind of support. All they require is an ISDN telephone line, a PC with ISDN card and Fujitsu DeskTop Conferencing software (approximately Pounds 1,200 on top of the price of a 486).

Case studies at Exeter University's School of Education in this new form of professional development with senior staff, teachers and support staff have shown that they can feel more confident using conferencing in their own school resource centre or classroom than in traditional, face-to-face training. The research project is being extended to trainee teachers.

The Exeter project is known as the Multimedia Communications Brokerage. The Internet mentor is Martin Myhill, the university's education librarian, whose guide to on-line information has recently been published. Martin takes an individual or small group of teachers surfing the Internet.

He explains the forms and structure of information on the Internet and the tools to enhance information skills. Bibliographic searching permits a search for library-based resources both at the local university and elsewhere around the world. Books and articles can be located and it is possible, with the aid of a credit card and fax, to receive the full version of an article within an hour of locating it.

Martin helps his clients become "street wise", aware of how to recognise more dubious sources of information. He reviews services and discussion groups and demonstrates how new participants can join this international babble, perhaps gaining gems of information and snippets of culture along with all the chat and technical jargon.

Another information service is being developed for CD-Rom, with support from Pioneer and the Interactive Technologies Curriculum Centre. Teachers are taken on an exploration of a sample of CD-Roms either the latest top 10 or those suited to their interests. Bruce Wright, the mentor, provides an overview of where and how they might be used for curriculum purposes. This addresses the frustration expressed by senior teachers who have had to make purchasing decisions "blindfold".

New tools and discoveries challenge science teachers, as do the new curriculum resources, including images, which can be stored on a hard disc or a PhotoCD. Dr Linda Baggott has pioneered the use of transmission electron microscope images in biology teaching. Dr Baggott's pictures were gathered during her research into mammalian reproduction, which has increased understanding of the structure and function of gametes (sperm and eggs). At high magnification these images provide an overview of cellular ultrastructure, but they are complex, so mediation is needed. Her expert understanding opens the sub-optical world and helps clients understand the new concepts and techniques.

At the other end of the magnification scale Dr Roger Trend provides a mentoring service for earth science. Here images are used to illustrate geological concepts. Pictures of local rocks are used to establish new depths of knowledge. They are reinforced with models of geological processes and maps of England which bring alive the prehistoric drift of continents.

Multimedia communications now provide new modes of teaching and learning. The expert remains on hand to respond to the client's interpretation and reflection. Images can also be transferred for local use, copyright permitting.

Collaboration in providing services permits the same equipment to be used for many purposes, which is cost-effective. It is unlikely that a university could answer the needs of everyone, but a brokerage links clients with those who can.

The Exeter project is supported by the Department of Employment (learning methods branch), British Telecom, Pioneer, Adobe systems, and Encyclopaedia Britannica. New service providers can contact the university to add their services Dr Niki Davis is a senior lecturer at Exeter University School of Education.

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