Down the line;Cover feature

10th September 1999 at 01:00
One of the biggest developments over the next few years will be the ways schools increasingly get content from the National Grid For Learning and the Internet. Content includes educational software, as well as the massive range of resources on the Internet, from images to data, and documents to teachers sharing ideas.

Granada Learning's Nigel Ward predicts: "In three to five years time educational software developers will not be selling boxes or CD-Roms, but delivering content online." Bill Bonham of Sherston agrees that online delivery of content will grow, but adds: "The CD-Rom is different from what can be delivered on the Internet. Video and animation are best suited for CD-Rom and it will be a long time before they are delivered down the wire." As a result, some content providers, like AngliaCampus, offer hybrid delivery systems, with video on disc and the other content online.

The time spent downloading content on slow telephone modem connections is another factor against online delivery. Yet faster data connections via cable, satellite and digital telephone technology will change the picture. In the short term, schools can also operate online services on an internal intranet.

But technology is not the only barrier to delivering content online, says David Taylor, managing director of Dorling Kindersley Interactive Learning. "Online publishing will be a gradual process as a lot of confidence-building has to be done in the publishing world. Publishers are not sure that the Internet access kit is out there in schools.

Publishing is a commercial business and has to make money, but how you do this on the Internet is the problem. It's also regrettable that some people think that everything on the Internet should be free."Taylor argues Nigel Ward adds that the model for delivering content online is still under development: "The issue of how you do business on the Internet isn't peculiar to education. Issues such as licensing and subscriptions need to be addressed, but I believe that fixed product purchase will become a thing of the past."

Content providers are using the Internet in a variety of ways. Dorling Kindersley for example, offers an online shop, which will eventually allow users to browse through the company's software. Granada Learning offers a 15 per cent discount to schools and parents who order software online. Semerc offers a special needs subscription service that allows schools to access a My World online resource. One of the most ambitious online services is AngliaCampus, set-up by BT and Anglia Multimedia. Subscription prices are pound;120 a year for primary schools and pound;450 for secondaries. AngliaCampus signed up its 1,000th school in June.

Mike Aston, chairman of the Educational Software Publishers Association, says: "What you have at the moment are subscription services that also include content, rather than content being sold and delivered per se. Trying to develop an economic model that allows software publishers to charge for software online is the problem. For example, how do you charge a school for using a program like Logo?" Aston thinks that a model adopted in Singapore could be a solution. There, the schools are on the same network and software is stored on a central server. Schools can order and use software, but they cannot download and store it on to their computers. A record is kept of the software used by each and a bill is sent out every month.

Peter Stibbons, managing director of Anglia Multimedia says there is a lot of good free content on the Internet, but adds that the problem for schools is finding it and knowing whether they can use it without breaching copyright laws. "There is no such thing as a free software service," he adds. "One LEA said that for the cost of subscribing to our service, they could employ a teacher to create content. But that teacher is going to have to be a content designer, developer, programmer, tester and a lawyer who can negotiate copyright contracts. Almost all of our text and images have been cleared for use in the classroom. We also employ teacher consultants to write content. All of this costs money."

Ben Walsh, a history and IT consultant, sympathises with companies trying to sell content online: "The biggest headache for content providers is that it costs you more to use an image on a web site than it does on a CD-Rom. And when you put it on the Net, people don't want to pay for it. So when you publish online, your costs are higher and your returns are nil. No one has cracked this problem yet."

Mark Robinson, ICT co-ordinator at Ambleside School, is opposed to paying for Internet content and says: "If it's on the Net, it should be free. The death of it will be if it gets taken over by companies that want to charge for their content."

Stephen Heppell, of Anglia Polytechnic University's Ultralab, has no objection to subscription services paid for by a school or LEA, but says:

"The most alarming scenario is kids logging on to a website and finding that the content they access depends on the amount of money they spend. We don't charge kids for using the school library or for reading a book."

The good news is that commercial companies like Dorling Kindersley will offer a mix of free and paid-for content.

However, schools must be prepared to pay for some online content says Ward:

"If you are going to receive a 'free' service it will probably involve some form of advertising and sponsorshipI it could be the price schools pay for getting some online content for free. It's an issue that is going to have to be tackled."

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