Curriculum Online landed on teachers' desks late last year. The initiative gives schools in England pound;300 million to spend on educational software over the next three years. The first pound;50m must be spent in the current academic year.
The aim is to equip schools with high-quality digital content to allow them to capitalise on their ICT hardware to raise standards.
The project has its own website where teachers can search for resources and decide what they are going to buy with their money, or electronic learning credits (eLCs) as Curriculum Online cash is futuristically called.
The website indicates which software is eligible: everything registered on the site and sporting the COL logo qualifies.
Actual purchases are made in the usual way, direct from the supplier. The site already has a very impressive 7,000 visitors a day. According to a spokesperson for the Department for Education and Skills, which manages Curriculum Online, the aim is to make it easy for teachers to quickly locate the best digital resources. It promises to be a one-stop shop for paid-for and free resources, with search options that mirror the national curriculum.
Not everyone is convinced that Curriculum Online will deliver on its promise, however, as content is built around advertising literature submitted by registered content providers and retailers.
Teachers hoping for informed, independent advice will be disappointed, says Martin Tibbetts, head of Cheslyn Hay primary school in Staffordshire.
"What teachers want is guidance on what to use when and the site does not give this. The worry is that it could end up putting a lot of money in the wrong pockets," says Tibbetts.
Companies with most to sell have been quick off the mark. Ten firms, including Heinemann, Channel 4 and Granada-Learning, have formed the Digital Learning Alliance, which tenuously advertises itself as "the main certified supplier of approved software that teachers are looking for".
By contrast, there is little incentive for teachers to register who swap their own digital resources online through sites such as the Teacher Exchange.
Very little of what is registered so far is free, although this will change once the BBC's free Digital Curriculum is added. Prices are not always competitive, as schools have to spend their eLCs with approved retailers.
Dorling Kindersley's Become A .... titles sell for pound;9.99 each on Amazon. Schools spending eLCs would have to buy from an approved retailer such as RM ,which as "part of a fantastic offer for schools to make the most of their learning credits" sells the same title with COL approval for pound;18.05.
Tibbetts, who has spent some eLCs, decided what he was going to buy by word of mouth and by swapping ideas at a seminar hosted by Becta, and only then visited the Curriculum Online website to check his selection.
One aspect of the site that should please teachers is the search facility.
This mirrors the national curriculum, so searches are by key stages and schemes of work.
Each of the smallest components making up the curriculum is electronically tagged. But in practice, the meticulous coding of tiny parts makes some searches difficult.
TES columnist Ted Wragg, professor of education at Exeter University, searched Curriculum Online for resources to help a Year 1 languages class .
He found the results, which stretched across all key stages, too vague.
"You might as well have given me a telephone directory," he said. One problem may be that companies are responsible for tagging and might exaggerate to show up in many searches.
Russell Prue from the DfES will present a seminar on Curriculum Online at 1.15pm on Thursday in Seminar Theatre D.
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