Dorothy Walker talks to David Berry, creator of Thomas Telford's online ICT courses

2nd May 2003 at 01:00
Twenty years ago, in his days as a trainee teacher, David Berry was fascinated by forecasts that children would one day use computers to learn independently. Now thousands of young learners around the world are doing just that, thanks to Berry's efforts - which have also generated millions of pounds for his school.

Berry is deputy head at Thomas Telford School in Telford, Shropshire, and creator of the school's innovative online ICT courses, which are used by more than 1,000 schools. He's also the creative force behind the award-winning website of the HSBC Global Education Challenge, which charted the progress of the recent Around Alone round-the-world yacht race.

Children from 36 countries logged on working on Berry-inspired challenges ranging across the curriculum.

Berry first discovered the power of ICT in 1983 when, as a probationary maths teacher in his native Hull, the maths graduate began running a school computer club as a way of using the newly introduced BBC computer. "I was teaching myself as I went along," he says. "But my confidence quickly grew as I realised you could use computers to get the children really motivated - and I shared their enthusiasm for this new technology."

Two years later he joined Hull's Bransholme High School (now Winifred Holtby School). Given special responsibility for ICT, the enterprising Berry set out to overcome a shortage of resources by persuading a local college to donate its old computers, which he linked together to create one of the earliest school networks. "It was fairly basic," he says. "But it did get people excited."

In 1988 he moved to the city's Archbishop Thurstan School, and began extending the use of ICT across the curriculum. "Suddenly the teachers were saying: ICT really does affect the way learners see the subject! That was a big moment for me," he explains. His efforts were rewarded in 1990, when Archbishop Thurstan won the Schools Curriculum Award.

In 1992 Berry joined Thomas Telford School, one of the earliest City Technology Colleges, as a deputy head with responsibility for ICT. He helped develop an online curriculum, underpinning every subject with online resources which students could use to re-visit any topic, or to look ahead at what was yet to come. The school found that once students had more control over their learning, they wanted to learn independently.

He set to work in 1999, writing a GNVQ course in ICT. So pleased were his colleagues with the result, they suggested offering it to other schools.

Forty schools were invited to use the online system, each paying pound;3,000 a year to cover Thomas Telford's ICT running costs. But in the space of six weeks another 437 schools had joined. "Suddenly we were in the realms of millions of pounds coming into the school," says a still-bemused Berry.

The governors set up a trust fund, which has funded two new academies in the West Midlands and helped 40 of the area's schools achieve specialist status.

Berry followed up by writing two further online ICT courses, for the AVCE and the new vocational GCSE. And he is currently directing a Thomas Telford team creating an online GCSE maths course, in partnership with the HSBC Education Trust, to help schools cope with the shortage of maths specialists. "I designed the maths course to be context-driven," explains Berry. "Students are faced with problems to solve. If they remember from key stage 3 how to solve them, they tackle the problems right away. If they can't remember, they use the learning section."

Berry used the same context-driven approach to bring the Around Alone race to life on the HSBC Global Education Challenge website, which recently won a coveted Yahoo! Pick of the Year award. Every evening for nine months, Berry laboured into the small hours to create online challenges to engage young learners in the race action. As the solo skippers battled the elements in their eight-month feat of endeavour, enthralled children launched themselves into tasks ranging from writing poetry about the Doldrums to counting rare leatherback turtles. "Gaining virtual experience of the race has changed me - and I hope that's true for the students, too," concludes Berry.

HSBC Global Education Challenge

Thomas Telford School

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