A European competition has highlighted the potential that the Internet offers education. Samantha Pandita-Gunawardena reports
Write your own adventure story, work out how fit (or unfit) you really are, or even plot a velocitytime graph. These are just a handful of the activities your pupils could learn from Europe's most innovative school websites.
Teachers and students from six European countries gathered at the Lisbon Expo 98 last month for a ceremony that highlighted the progress schools have made in their use of the Internet in education.
Three British schools were awarded Microsoft's Road Ahead Prize for producing the most innovative and creative websites, along with winners from Portugal, Ireland, Finland, Belgium and France.
Just over 1,000 schools entered the competition, started two years ago by Microsoft to "support lifelong learning initiatives and the innovative use of information technology in education in Europe". Bill Gates gave the programme his endorsement by personally awarding the prizes and each of the 17 schools took home a cheque worth Pounds 10,000.
The quality of the websites shows just how much scope the Internet offers as an educational tool. Having the technology is one thing - but possessing the enthusiasm and imagination to use and develop it to the school's best advantage is quite another.
The worthy winner in the British secondary schools category was Buttershaw Upper School in Bradford. This science-based website prides itself on its interactive experiments. The head of science, Vernon Levy, who developed the site with the help of a sixth former, Noel Hustler, and a physics teacher, Gareth James, has broken new ground in educational websites with his use of software allowing students to create interactive spreadsheets that can be embedded into Web pages. Although this software is already widely used by technology companies, it is still relatively new in school websites.
The Buttershaw website teaches students how to use spreadsheets to solve scientific problems by plotting their own graphs on screen.
The Harvard Step Test, meanwhile, involves students in a practical investigation into calculating fitness. They are given a physical exercise to carry out away from the computer and then taught how to work out their fitness by measuring their pulse and writing down their findings on an on-screen worksheet. Pupils are asked: "Does the pace of the steps affect the pulse and recovery? How would you go about investigating this?" In short, children are encouraged to think for themselves and develop their investigative skills and lateral thinking.
Buttershaw's user-friendly website even offers free browser plug-in software so that visitors can get the most from the site, and clear installation advice is given on their use. The creative use of these plug-ins can be seen in the chemistry section in which pupils are invited to explore the links between the physical properties of chemicals by moving around three-dimensional chemical molecules on screen. Who would have imagined that teaching via a computer could be this fun, interactive and productive? Vernon Levy calls it "inspiration technology".
ill Gates predicts that the Internet will eventually become as integral a part of education in schools as books are now. This vision has already been realised in Sutton-on-Sea CP School in Lincolnshire, UK winner of the primary schools category. Headteacher Chris Flanagan, who single-handedly maintains his school's website, has ensured that every single class in the school has access to the Internet.
There are 32 multimedia and Internet- enabled computers on a distributed network in nine classrooms. He plans to use the prize money to purchase portable computers for use on field trips and to provide video-conferencing facilities, as well as digital cameras and scanners. This is a primary school at the cutting edge of technology.
The website itself is visually bright and colourful, and children are guided step by step on a journey through the site.
Much effort has been put into making it as attractive and accessible as possible to its young users. Visit the Learning Zone and you will be asked:
"Have you ever found it hard to get started when your teacher asks you to write a story?" Story Starts uses a template of the opening paragraph of an imaginary story and gives children the chance to choose from a selection of adjectives to fill in the gaps to get them started. There is also a Search page with simple instructions for children on how to use a search engine to find words or combinations of words on the site. Once again, interaction is the key to this site's success.
Penkford Technology School and Special Needs Resource Centre in Merseyside has an easy-to-navigate and well-illustrated website which snapped up the winning prize in the UK special needs schools category. Downloading Adobe Acrobat (a link to Adobe's website is provided if you need it) allows you to leaf through pages of the school newspaper, read the school's Office for Standards in Education report or browse through the school prospectus.
The ICT co-ordinator, John Twiss, and the ICT technician and webmaster, Ian Austen, who produced the website, intend to use the prize money to create a school intranet, as pupils have limited Internet access. The school is fortunate enough to have a full-time technician to design the website, but it is worth noting that all those involved in producing the UK winning websites are self-taught in HTML, the Web programming language.
As the number of Internet users in Western European education is expected to rise from 729,000 (in 1998) to 1,261,000 by the year 2001, an increasing number of schools will be going online and breaking new ground in their use of technology.
The Internet should not be seen as a threat to traditional methods of teaching, but as an exciting educational tool whose real teaching potential is only just being discovered.
Buttershaw Upper School: http:schoolsite.edex.net.uk323science.html Penkford School: http:www.penkford.demon.co.ukindex.htm Sutton-on-Sea CP School: http:www.sutton.lincs.sch.uk