A good idea off the shelf

16th April 1999 at 01:00
Tesco's ambitious SchoolNet 2000 presents a big and bold Net challenge. Jack Kenny reports

When you get primary pupils producing high-quality rap, you know something is going right. Technically, this particular rap is astonishing, in curriculum terms it is relevant and, most importantly, you know the children all had fun doing it. The primary school, Christ Church Church of England in Folkestone, is one of more than 14,000 taking part in Tesco SchoolNet 2000.

Professor Stephen Heppell, one of the project organisers, says: "We have done the cautious stuff, now it's time to be brave." The Tesco SchoolNet 2000 project is certainly brave. The world's biggest Internet project, it has been running since last year to celebrate the year 2000 through the eyes of British children and to preserve this moment in time on the Internet for the world. Every school in the UK has been invited to take part in what is proving to be a rewarding project.

There are now more than 13,500 schools, 40,000 children, 14,000 teachers and 15,000 web pages. The key partners are supermarket chain Tesco; Xemplar, which is supplying the technology and providing educational consultancy and expertise; and Ultralab and Intuitive Media, responsible for the educational content of the project and the website. Tesco is financing the project with pound;6 million, an example of what education and industry can achieve when they work together.

Forty teachers are in place to support the project. In addition, these Tesco teachers have been given a taste of what it is like to work outside teaching because each has been given a mobile phone, Ford Mondeo and the new Apple G3 laptop. Even more importantly, each has a curriculum brief and targets to promote the creative use of IT to more teachers.

It is hoped that more teachers will become confident in using the National Grid for Learning. The work of the Tesco teachers is monitored by themselves. Each has access via the Internet to their own targets and the progress that has been made to meet them, and they can see the same information for all their colleagues, enabling them all to make an instant assessment of their own place in the scheme of things.

Stephen Heppell of Ultralab believes that the use of the National Grid must be interactive. It is his principles that underlie the work of the project. Children will have four termly topics that explore the children's views of themselves, their environment, the people they see around them and their hopes for the future. Each activity will be simple and produce worthwhile results both for the child and those who will eventually see their work. It is also hoped that the work will lead to content which could be used in the future. Earlier criticisms that the work would be difficult to search have been dealt with and from now on there will be more structure in the data.

Designing the curriculum investigations, and designing and maintaining the website is the responsibility of Bob Hart of Intuitive Media. It is impressive to see the amount of care that has been taken to ensure that children are working in a safe environment. The translation of ordinary text and graphics into HTML, the language of the Web, is innovative.

Other materials that have been designed include suggestions on how to introduce and involve children, online templates and useful questions for each investigation, questionnaires for interviews, as well as a letter to gain approval from interviewees for their comments to go on the Internet.

Each child has their own page and all the work goes to a giant website. The servers are located at Tesco's head office in Welwyn Garden City. The pages will be accessible from any computer connected to the Net. The work continues to pour in and a lot of it is genuinely innovative.

More than 340 Tesco stores are equipped with Internet access, scanners, digital cameras and portable computers to help children complete their projects. This equipment provides Internet facilities for schools without their own relevant technology. For areas where there is no local Tesco store, equipment will be installed in a local library.

Bob Hart and Stephen Heppell have been surprised at just what classroom teachers have been able to achieve. They now believe that such projects can be seen as training models. "In a real way the project has found a safe way to extend learning beyond the school walls and to offer a global audience for that learning."

This is a national project that is not as well resourced as the Lottery-funded teacher training initiative and will not reach as far. However, it has shown that a handful of people and a retailer can produce something of value in a short time, that will be motivating now, and innovative and useful in the future.

At the NAACE conference in February, Stephen Heppell challenged the delegates with a checklist for the year:

* Be action researchers * Discover better ways of assessing * Vouchsafe public service * Guard against the ICT backlash * Be ambitious for our children * Stop trying to impose certainty * Build partnerships * Get universities to do something useful * Look at what old technology prevented us from doing * Remember that the UK is good at this - enjoy it.

Most of these points could apply to this project. SchoolNet 2000 is only one-third completed and teachers can register by phone or online.

Tel: 0845 601 1423. www.schoolnet2000.com Christ Church rap rubble.ultralab.anglia.ac.ukschoolnet_music

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