In Reading, teachers are wired directly into pupils' homes. Roger Frost reports
Over the past year or so, Highdown School in Reading, Berkshire, has been the centre of a project to connect the school network to the community via the Internet.
As well as offering learning resources and information, like a number of schools already on the Internet, Highdown has helped about 50 parents and teachers, from beginner level upwards, to connect their homes, too.
With the support of Microsoft, Telecential (a cable company) and others, the school plumbed its fleet of 85 computers - acquired thanks to a Technical Schools Initiative grant - into a fast line to the Internet, the sort of line you rarely find outside businesses and universities, that speeds up the normally slow and tedious surfing of the Internet.
Here, in what Microsoft calls a "connected learning community", the parents can call in to the school and exchange mail electronically with the teachers, check homework assignments, look up school resources or surf the Internet at large - though with dubious areas screened off. The parents also formed project groups to look for materials on special needs and subject topics.
Even at this early stage parents say they are now much better tuned into what their children are doing at school. Some families even described how they would spend evenings sitting around the computer instead of the television. Surprisingly, despite the lack of human contact in using e-mail, the fact that parents could write to teachers more easily led many of them to feel they were in partnership with school. Also from home, the teachers could answer their mail, post minutes and go surfing for materials they might adapt for lessons.
Not everyone was enamoured with the idea of working evenings though; one teacher called it a double-edged sword and others worried about opening up the lines from parents. How they will feel when they set up an discussion group - essentially an invitation to grouch to governors - will be worth watching.
As for the pupils, they were enthused. They could use information technology to structure their work and produce better offerings than usual. In several subjects, teachers prepared teaching materials and worksheet templates that pupils would work through on the network.
Pupils can click their way to facts and activities about volcanoes, hydrology or whatever, and they seem to have relished the taste of accessing live, up-to date information from the Internet.
Teachers have been encouraged by the facilities to change tack and use more resource-based learning. Rather than an "Internet project", they've found themselves in something more like a curriculum development project. The deputy head, Chris Poole, says: "Teachers are always looking for ways to improve what they do in and around the classroom."
Reading Council is now considering plans to wire all the county's schools to the Internet. Chris Poole certainly feels that Highdown's success is replicable. "If you give teachers IT, they will embrace it. All schools could benefit in this way if they are bold enough."
The Highdown experience, where the number of IT experts has grown from just a few to nearly 20 in a short time, is a germ of proof.
Encouragingly for schools elsewhere, some of the benefits seen at Highdown could come from lesser technology. For example, other schools can easily use IT, build Internet sites and school intranets - Microsoft is now giving away a disc full of tools to use (see box).
Highdown is now looking at its resources and speedy connection as a future source of revenue for the school; ideas such as offering training and selling subscriptions to the Internet are being looked at. Were this sort of high-capacity connection to be extended to homes, today's technology would even allow them to support other people's machines from afar.
* The Highdown project is partof the Department for Education and Employment's Superhighways Initiative and was supported by Microsoft, ICL, Digital, Superscape, Telecential Cable and Kodak. A detailed evaluation of the projectis being prepared by Lancaster University, for publication laterthis year. Highdown School is at: www.highdown.berks.sch.uk
BUILD YOUR OWN INTRANET ON A PC NETWORK
Microsoft is offering schools a free pack of software that enables them to build an intranet using their own PC networks. Its Communications Tools for Schools offer is aimed at network managers rather than novices and includes ready-made Internet pages with timetables, class lists, and subject pages. Included also is MS FrontPage, which allows schools to edit and manage the system, as well as other tools such as WebWhacker, which captures Internetpages on disc, and WebPrinter, a booklet-printing program.
NetMeeting and CUSeeMe allow a networked computer with a camera to work like a videophone. Many of the tools run on Microsoft's Windows NT - and a time-restricted version of this is included. Some also work on Apple systems. Microsoft can be contancted on 0345 002000 ext 225.