Golden opportunity

1st November 2002 at 00:00
How do software publishers view Curriculum Online? George Cole plays agony uncle to the industry to find out its likes and dislikes

It's no exaggeration to say that the educational software industry warmly welcomes the Curriculum Online (COL) initiative. The response of Gordon Nelson, RM's commercial business manager, is typical. "The portal will be a great central point for finding resources for teachers," he says. Meanwhile, David Haggie, Nelson Thornes' business development manager, says COL has "galvanised the publishing industry", adding: "Its message is that ICT isn't going to go away."

Over the years, the main focus of ICT in education has been about building the infrastructure, but this is now shifting, says Nigel Ward, managing director of Granada Learning Group. "We're now looking at how we can get the best out of ICT to deliver the curriculum through good content," he says.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the software industry is happy to see pound;50 million of ring-fenced, time-limited funding - known as e-Learning Credits (ELCs) - going into the market, especially as much of the 15 per cent of NGFL funding allocated to software has not always been spent on its intended target.

Many small publishers also believe COL will help them reach a wider audience. "It's great for us, because our budget can't stretch to lots of advertising and marketing," says Melanie Kerslake, Topologika's business development manager. The upshot is that publishers are positive and enthusiastic, but not everyone is happy with its execution.

A lot of work has gone into preparing for the arrival of COL. Many software publishers have "tagged" their products to comply with a sophisticated search engine that will enable teachers to find content by various criteria (such as subject or age) and publisher websites have been adapted in anticipation. RM, for example, plans to have 40 product families (composed of around 600 to 700 applications) on the COL portal. When a teacher clicks on a product they will be taken to the RM site where they will find a further product description and other relevant information. RM has re-designed its site to show what products are eligible for ELCs.

RM will also provide an online "shopping basket" and "wish list". The latter is for teachers who may not have the authority to spend money on software, but may wish to bring a product to the notice of a colleague who handles the ELC budget.

Publishers have had to contend with a number of issues related to COL, including the BBC's plans to launch a Digital Curriculum and spend pound;150 million on free software for schools. "If the BBC's plans go through, it will cause a huge wobble in investment by commercial software companies," says Lorna Cocking, head of education at Pearson Education. David Eccles, director of strategic development at Softease, simply says:

"I can't see the BBC doing anything but harm."

However, the BBC says that it will not have a presence on COL until it knows what the Culture Department will allow it to offer schools. A decision is expected soon.

The biggest issue has been the delayed launch of COL for technical and logistical reasons. Many publishers have complained the tagging software takes a lot of time to implement. Trish Hornsey, managing director of Inclusive Technology, says: "Tagging has put a great burden on small software companies like ours. We don't have the resources to devote to it so we'll be late putting our products on to the portal."

Another issue has been the delay in accrediting companies as members of the COL portal. "We're printing our new catalogue before we're officially accredited, so we can't use a COL logo or tell teachers which products are eligible for ELC funding," says Brian Richardson, partner of Cambridgeshire Software House.

The DfES hoped to launch the COL portal this autumn, but the longer the delay, the worse it gets for some companies, according to Dominic Savage, director general of the British Educational Suppliers Association. "Some of our members are reporting that schools are not ordering new software or are returning it or are late in making payments," he says. "We believe it's because they want to use the ELCs for buying software."

He welcomed the news that schools will be allowed to spend their ELCs with accredited suppliers via the usual channels without waiting for the COL portal.

Despite the problems, most publishers remain upbeat. As Tony Wheeler, creative director of Tag Learning, puts it: "In the long run Curriculum Online will be fantastic."

* What publishers need to do

* Register as accredited content suppliers andor retailers for COL.

* Tag their product lines and upload them to the COL portal. This will enable schools to use a sophisticated search engine that can find content through a variety of criteria, such as age, subject and key stage.

* Prepare links from COL to their websites or portals, where teachers will be given more information about the product that they have selected, plus an opportunity to buy it and other products.

* Develop e-commerce systems to simplify the process of ordering content online. Eventually, these will allow schools to both order and make payments online.

* Identify products in their paper catalogues and online that are eligible for ELC expenditure.

* Advice for schools

* Don't delay buying software until COL is launched.

* Don't put off buying software until you receive your ELCs.

* When you visit COL, search for content that meets your needs rather then going straight for the free content.

* See ELCs as an addition to your software expenditure and not as a replacement for some or all of it.

* Don't feel that you need a broadband connection to use COL. Although broadband is useful, it is not essential for finding and ordering content online.

* Try and get as many of your staff to use COL - don't leave it just to the enthusiasts who regularly use the internet.

* Check publisher websites for the latest information.

* Check the COL site at www.curriculumonline.gov.uk

* If there are any issues when it comes to using COL, contact the publisher, Becta or the DfES. Feedback (both positive and negative) will be crucial if COL is to develop into a portal that meets the needs of all teachers.

* Remember that Curriculum Online is organic - it will grow and develop. Don't expect everything to be in place from day one - it will get even better as time goes on.

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