A way through the maze

1st September 1995 at 01:00
Mark Sealey finds some US software to take the grind out of lesson plans. Be honest. However well organised you are, don't you sometimes spend more time than you'd like tracking down and trying to choose intelligently from the mass of resources available for a particular curriculum area?

Once you've searched the catalogues, picked colleagues' brains and uncurled last year's teaching notes, the task of aggregating what you've chosen into termly, weekly, daily or individual lesson schedules is not a small one.

Then, mapping the variety of teaching strategies and learning styles (homework from books or practical work in the lab, for example) on to the timetable rather gets in the way of what you were trained to do and enjoy most being with the kids.

Finally, you need to audit and account for the proportion of time spent with each different approach as it varies with age range and circumstances. Isn't that enough to make you give up?

There is seldom time (or energy) to reflect on which combination of methods is best suited to each resource, or to plan for the right mix of media types, student grouping and teaching strategy. Yet this is what you are best at.

Curriculum Orchestrator, from North American company Chancery Software (available in the USand Canada for Apple now and shortly for Windows), is a superb suite of productivity software which will do all this by automatically reconciling resources to curriculum. It amalgamates them into lesson plans that you can easily edit and design on screen and then link to an appropriate delivery medium class "lecture", group work, assessment-based session, individual, paired or discovery work and so on.

However complex and sophisticated such a process is, however ambitious in its scope, Curriculum Orchestrator works very well and there should be a UK version early in 1996 from Tag Developments.

Running from a simple-to-learn system of menus and navigation tools, Curriculum Orchestrator enables a teacher, department and school to maximise the use it makes of the materials available. These can include printed sources, software, courseware, schemes, equipment, on-line tools and almost any other learning resource that the students are likely to come across.

The resource details need only be entered once in the software's "knowledge base", where they are automatically correlated with curriculum documents. Teachers exploit these correlations to generate lesson plans. These index all suitable resources and show whether they are available according to a "filter" whose criteria you have set. As a result, there is a greater incentive to experiment in designing and sequencing lessons: the software does the work. You can become creative again.

You manipulate your curriculum in the Syllabus Outline segment of the software. This is easily achieved using a visually powerful and familiar metaphor, that of the Macintosh-style directory hierarchies (with their revolving triangles). The lesson plans are at the foot of a hierarchy which also encompasses various curriculum units under the full control of the teacher. They could equate to national curriculum attainment targets, strands and most important learning objectives.

Each resource is linked to the name of its originator which is just as likely to be a major commercial publisher as a local authority, school, IT centre or teacher. Addresses and ordering details can be accessed at this point so that prospective purchasers of materials can assess how far they will match curriculum plans and needs. Schools and local authorities may want to index their own resources for use by colleagues.

The companion Chancery software, ClassWorks, also takes care of this linking but comes at it from the product end of things. Think of it: you click on a lesson, and all the necessary and available resources are displayed.

Monthly, weekly or daily lesson schedules can be easily and flexibly controlled. Curriculum Orchestrator would be as useful in a primary school as in the more stringent scheduling of a secondary. Its timetabling facilities allow a variety of alterations and can cater for the "interruptions" of assemblies, in-service training days and lesson over- or under-runs.What is more, appointments and notes (such as, "unfinished: extra time for class discussion") can be added in the right places. Prices vary greatly according to the installation. An average early secondary setup of ClassWorks on 15 to 30 workstations with curriculum software would cost about $20,000 (some schools spend up to $40,000). One "knowledge base" (ie subject) for Curriculum Orchestrator would cost $199 for one teacher, $595 for four teachers and so on.

Although Curriculum Orchestrator is a worthy product in its own right, when allied with ClassWorks it presents a challenge to the OILS (Open Integrated Learning Systems) initiative. An Integrated Learning System (ILS) sets on-screen tasks for pupils, assesses their progress and adjusts subsequent work to suit their individual needs.

This British OILSscheme ap-pears to attempt two things: provide alternative software and course material to compete with the Integrated Learning Systems from the US (such as Success Maker, marketed in the UK by Research Machines); and allow educators the potential to assemble and include in their work every resource available to them.

Products, such as software programs, which are specifically "adapted" to the OILS standard will carry an identifying logo to indicate that they can provide some feedback on pupils' progress. But there is a need for something more than the management system provided by OILS, which only attempts to integrate resources with the national curriculum for a limited form of pupil assessment.

Although, the OILS experiment seeks to match teaching material to pupils' individual needs, it is not always in accord with sound learning theory and the match does not always meet the demands of crammed timetables managed by hard-pressed teachers.

When Curriculum Orchestrator is specially adapted to the national curriculum, it should be a very significant tool indeed and should give the OILS Consortium something to think about.

Chancery Software, Suite 450, 4170 Still Creek Drive, Burnaby, BC, Canada V5C 6C6POA. Tel: 001 604 294 1233. Fax: 001 604 294 2225. E-mail (AppleLink): chancery

Tag Developments, 25 Pelham Road, Gravesend, Kent DA11 0HU. Tel: 0800 591262

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