Community websites

16th October 1998 at 01:00
Channel 4 and the BBC are developing online resources for use in the classroom, writes Chris Johnston

Many multimedia programs incorporate video, but it is usually seen on only a small part of the screen and the quality is often poor. This is not the case in a pilot project at James Brindley High School in Stoke-on-Trent. It offers not only high-quality full-screen video, but also text-based information and audio, animation, graphics, still images and links to the Internet.

The Interactive Learning Environment is being developed by a consortium including Channel 4, ICL, Stoke-on-Trent City Council and Worldgate Limited, a Stoke information technology firm.

So far, three Channel 4 English, geography and science programmes have been adapted for the project. One deals with the Tikuna Indians of the Amazon jungle. It lets students work at their own pace and allows them to watch video segments on topics such as logging, mining and farming, read about them and get more information if desired by accessing the pre-vetted websites.

There are also 3D virtual reality images of different areas, such as the village in which the Indians live. John Eardley, the school's head of geography, says these are a good starting point for lessons. Students complete an assessment element after each module.

The programmes give teachers a great deal of flexibility. They can decide which sections are relevant and teach those to the whole class using an electronic whiteboard, or let students work independently. Peter O'Hagan, special projects co-ordinator with Stoke education department and helping to drive the initiative, says teachers need the independence that the programme offers if they are to use it in the classroom.

Many teachers have reservations about the computer "integrated learning systems" that filter pupils along linear paths, but the developers believe the Interactive Learning Environment is a big step forward. What should make it even more palatable is the way the content can be quickly and easily updated. It is delivered to schools from central servers via broadband networks and stored on a server no larger than a normal desktop computer.

James Brindley High School pupils using the Amazon programme liked the way it allows different ways of obtaining information. "The best thing about it is having videos, information and assignments all in one place," says Caroline Woods, a Year 11 geography student. "You don't have to get up - everything you need to learn about the topic is on the computer." It is difficult to gain a full understanding of the project's potential without seeing it in use, but teachers who get the opportunity are likely to be as excited as those developing it.

The BBC might have been late coming to the online education game, but it has been playing very seriously since joining at the start of the year. Its umbrella site for schools, the Learning Station, houses various websites covering primary maths, literacy and a wide range of material for secondary students, as well as information for teachers and parents.

A number of new sites have recently been added, such as the Little Animals Activity Centre, a numeracy and literacy reinforcement for four to seven-year-olds featuring animated woodland characters, and Medicine Through Time for 14 to 16-year-olds, which concentrates on the popular GSCE history curriculum.

S you would expect from a well-resourced public service broadcaster, all of the BBC's websites have content prepared by experts, but are also cleverly designed and visually appealling, thanks to the use of technology such as Shockwave and Java.

According to Louise Waas and Kate Vahl, two of the BBC's schools Web producers, the aim is to create online productions rather than sites that merely act as support material for television programmes. The hope is to devise a "richly produced, stimulating package for teachers and children that picks up on the themes, the look and the general principles of the broadcasts, but in an online way", Vahl explains.

The key, she says, is to engage pupils and give them an enjoyable experience online, rather than providing information alone. The sites try to do this by using animated characters, sound effects, music and interactive elements.

The secondary geography site, South Africa 2000, has content from South African pupils, who can be contacted by email. Students can also contribute their views on issues, such as whether dams are beneficial or damaging.

Getting students to contribute to the sites is a way of encouraging them to return - what the producers describe as "building communities". Waas says that "repeated usage is essential". Teachers are also able to participate by posting lesson plans or responding to student comments. Several sites can be downloaded to be used off-line, providing teachers with a "rich CD-Rom-like resource" to use in the classroom.

Waas and Vahl say the BBC wants its online provision to be unique and better than that of its competitors, but not just for novelty's sake. "We want to make sure that the resources we produce are truly useful for schools - as long as we focus on that we will succeed," she says.

Creating interesting websites for primary pupils is one priority, Vahl says, so that a comprehensive range of material is available for the increasing number of primary schools getting online.

The most ambitious primary offering so far is the recently launched DynaMo, which incorporates television, books and the Internet to help the parents of primary pupils learning from home. The aim of the secondary sites is to present what teachers regard as the most difficult aspects of the curriculum in new ways. Interactive exercises allow students to test their skills, work in groups and help others by posting their efforts on the site.

BBC Online may not yet be a year old but, as Waas and Vahl hope the websites are give teachers a resource that is "really valuable and extremely useful".

Electronic whiteboards, page 43

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