Cut to the chase

19th September 2003 at 01:00
A database of education websites will save teachers hours of wayward surfing. Eleanor Caldwell explains

You can get lots of information on the Internet, but teachers rarely have time to surf the net themselves to find the most effective sites, let alone tag them to the curriculum.

For both primary teachers covering the 5-14 curriculum and secondary subject specialists teaching classes at all levels, a catalogue of Internet sources would be an essential reference tool.

At the multimedia learning centre in Bellshill Academy, a team of 20 teachers recently completed just such a catalogue, financed by almost pound;70,000 from the Scottish Executive. It will be maintained by Learning and Teaching Scotland as part of the revamped National Grid for Learning Scotland website and will be available later this autumn.

The working team of primary and secondary teachers was recruited from 170 applicants from across Scotland to generate curriculum material for the NGfL. They worked over three weeks to produce a database of 1,600 records and 1,200 websites. All 5-14 and post-16 curricular areas have been covered, with the exception of German, home economics and drama.

Kevin O'Hara, the head of the learning centre, devised the project. He saw the summer break as an ideal window of opportunity for enthusiastic teachers to fill a gap by creating a focused Internet reference resource.

The project took a structured approach. Each team member was given a set of 50 portals, such as BBCi, NGfL or Schoolzone, and had to take a hard look at all the relevant websites listed within them and assess their suitability for individual subjects at all levels within the Scottish curriculum.

They then had to tag the site to the appropriate curriculum area (for example, language), the component (English language), the attainment outcome (reading) and level (E). For each of these, teachers wrote a brief review.

The review for a French site, for example, reads: "difficult to navigate initially but worthwhile persevering I Learners should be encouraged to focus on the foreign language learning items."

A second general description gives a more catalogued approach: "Covers a variety of topics, including social issues such as the environment, drug and alcohol abuse I and also history, interactive stories, recipes and cinema links."

An additional time-saving tool giving key words, such as "projets pedagogiques", "correspondance scolaire" and "chatroom", provides focused reference points.

The programme for the key word search was devised by John Mitchell, a technical support assistant and former pupil at Bellshill Academy, who worked with the team in the summer. Several ICT specialists employed at the learning centre were also involved.

In addition to working on the initial sets of 50 portals, teachers proposed their own favourite sites, already tried and tested in school, to be assessed for inclusion on the database.

After work on these portals was completed, areas of poor coverage in terms of curricular content or attainment level were identified and the team moved on to wider Internet searches to try to fill the obvious gaps.

Pockets of need have been identified. For 5-14 physical education, on average four websites were found for each attainment target.

In some cases, investigative searches brought to light sites that at first seemed excellent but with examination proved unsuitable for school use. An apparently excellent site on Judaism, for example, was found to contain a lot of inflammatory and extreme pro-Zionist material, so it was not included on the database.

The teachers acted as peer group reviewers of each other's work and made suggestions for linguistic and content changes.

The database leaves virtually no stone unturned. For secondary geography within the 16-18 age range, every attainment target was covered, with an average of 47 websites for each target.

As the project reached completion, the team decided it would be helpful for teachers to have exemplar material and management notes to give them ideas for using the websites in lesson planning. So far, this has been done only for eight subjects.

Maintenance and review will be ongoing and Mr O'Hara hopes that future developments will ensure any gaps in the database are filled.

Neil MacFarlane, the team leader at the Scottish Executive's new educational developments division, is pleased with the project so far. It is an effective model, he says, and as much as anything has proved the worth of pulling a group of teachers together for a period of focused activity aimed at a clearly defined outcome, namely providing a clearly needed product.

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