Headlines are often made for all the wrong reasons

15th June 2001 at 01:00
Recent history has shown that when it comes to real teachers in front of the camera, headlines are often made for all the wrong reasons. Last year, the chaos at Islington Arts and Media school in north London made unedifying prime-time viewing as the so-called "super head", Torsten Friedag, failed spectacularly to improve the school's performance.

Before being voted out of Channel 4's Big Brother house, Lisa Ellis (aka Penny), an English teacher at Sarah Bonnell school in east London, had been titillating viewers and enraging her head, Cauthar Tooley, with "accidental" slips of the towel on camera as she left the shower. 4 Learning - the education arm of Channel 4 - looks set to break this "teachers in shocker" cycle with the September launch of the online service Real Teachers.

4 Learning is being hush-hush about the project, but if it launches the service as planned, teachers will not only be able to get lesson plans and activity sheets online, they will be able to watch and learn how these resources are used in class by the teachers who produced them. 4 Learning employs teachers on its Homework High website, which is dedicated to students. Real Teachers will attempt to give students, NQTs and experienced teachers the opportunity to pick up ideas and aid their professional development at a time to suit them.

Webcams have been set up in classrooms in two secondary schools in the UK (one being Hazlewood Integrated school in Belfast), and volunteers are assessing the resulting online footage. Although those with a password will be able to accessthe live webcam broadcasts, archived materials of the lessons will also be made available online.

A small number of schools are involved in the project, but Paul Ashton, a 4 Learning commissioning editor, hopes to have 22 schools wired up when the service is fully operational.

Once the pilot period has ended, executives at 4 Learning will be thrashing out issues such as online security and the anonymity of students, whether the service will be free or on subscription, and payments to teachers, who will not only be supplying materials but will be expected to produce lessons worth watching.

If the service does launch, it will be the first of its kind in the UK targeted at compulsory education. But online lectures are nothing new in the HE sector, and they have long been touted as a way for universities to make money from their top-draw lecturers.

In March, a group of academics launched the company Boxmind (www.boxmind.com) to provide a global lecturing service. As well as having available on demand filmed lectures by such world authorities as evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins and historian Niall Ferguson, university subscribers can view slides, lecture transcripts and weblinks on the split screen.

Whether the 4 Learning service will be as sophisticated has yet to be seen, but it does open up the possibilities for a new brand of "super teachers", and it certainly adds a whole new slant to teacher training. Look out for more information on Real Teachers in The TES in September.


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