Douglas Blane on a colourful website that encourages pupils to take care of their most precious asset
Technology pundits and artificial intelligence gurus have been forecasting the imminent demise of the teacher since the first electron zipped across the first thermionic valve. Computers, they used to assure us, were smarter than people and would be able to teach children all day long without benefit of caffeine, nicotine, lunch or any other performance-enhancing drug. The days of the teacher were numbered and we might as well look out the spade and wellies and start digging our allotments.
It hasn't happened, and until a computer can respond to individual children, make imaginative connections, tell stories about its own schooldays and march around in an old sports jacket with elbow-patches, it's not going to happen.
Cyberschool, the Health Education Board for Scotland's (HEBS) website, sounds as if it aspires to replace schools and teachers, but its ambitions are more realistic. It carries a wealth of health news and topical information about drugs, sex, smoking, drinking and AIDS. It can be used for projects, provoking discussions, or just for fun.
It is set up like a school. In the staffroom, teachers can prepare lessons, have a chat and hear the latest news over coffee. In the classroom, children will find information about healthy living and growing up. Over in the library, they can pursue topics in depth with links to journals, health support groups, statistics, research reports and other health-related websites. And in the common room they can relax, play games and test their knowledge with an entertaining quiz.
"If we put out a health message," says Dr Eldon Zuill, HEBS lead officer for the Cyberschool task group, "all schools have access to it. You can't say 'it got lost in the post' or 'my granny lit the fire with it' on the Internet. Now Cyberschool is up and running, it's the start of the beginning. The next stage, where we follow up leads from schools and try to respond to feedback, is crucial. But it won't end there."
Dr Zuill is aware of the danger of success and self-satisfied stagnation. He says: "All sites need major facelifts as they go along. In a couple of years this technology, which looks good now, will be museum stuff, so there has to be a way to refresh it. A lot of health-related sites look very dated, and if you're aiming at schoolkids they're thinking 'Cyberschool? C'mon, who are these adults trying to fool'. So it's got to be flashy and in your face. Once that's there and they realise we're an authoritative site that's up-to-date, factual and fun, kids and teachers will use it and keep on using it."
Teachers and children from various schools were invited to HEBS to evaluate the website. David Bird, principal teacher of computing at James Gillespie's High School, Edinburgh, says: "If you want to attract teenagers, you have to look at the media they're surrounded by - it's very colourful, very quick, almost subliminal. So anything you're aiming at young people has to be of that culture. This site was built using state-of-the-art stuff. Our guidance staff are looking at it, and plan to build the site into their health education curriculum.
Julie Crosbie, a sixth-year pupil at Trinity Academy, Edinburgh, says: "It will appeal to first and second-year pupils. It's very different to what we did at that age and it'll give the kids another way of looking at things. For the older pupils it will be good if they're doing a project or an investigation. There's a lot of information there."
Dr Zuill says: "We want as much feedback as we can get. We got one e-mail from Oregon saying 'Hey, like your site, here are the answers to the questions, please send me a T-shirt'. Which is very nice but not really what we're about - our job is to concentrate on Scotland. I was a teacher for 18 years, I've been at HEBS now for 10 and I've managed lots of projects, but Cyberschool is the most exciting, no question about it."
Cyberschool can be found at www.hebs.scot.nhs.ukcyberschool.