As the BBC prepares to launch its free online digital curriculum there are rumblings from rival software companies. Michael Shaw reports
The BBC's free online version of the curriculum is expected to be more useful to pupils learning independently than as a classroom tool for teachers.
Staff working on the pound;150 million publicly-funded project say the website will use animated cartoon characters, games and interactive simulations.
But they warn that some teachers may be disappointed by the digital curriculum - recently rebranded BBC Jam - because it could be difficult to use in traditional whole-class lessons.
The website will be unveiled at the BETT education technology show in London later this month. It will go online at the end of the month with material for seven subjects, including maths and English for five to seven-year-olds (see box right).
By 2008 the site will provide free activities and educational material for all major subjects studied by five to 16-year-olds, although it is restricted to covering only 50 per cent of the curriculum in each topic to protect competitors.
Derek Butler, senior commissioner of BBC Jam, said: "The whole feel of it is going to be learner-centred rather than teacher-centred. The concept is that it will be an immersive world, a rich environment which will be different for different age groups, and which children will want to come to by choice."
Mr Butler said that there would be different welcoming screens for five to seven-year-olds, seven to 11-year-olds and 11 upwards.
A six-year-old learning on the maths program would be greeted by moving cartoon animals which would lead them to mathematical activities.
A 15-year-old studying business studies would be led through the subject by filmed presenters who would put them in charge of interactive simulations such as managing the Eden project in Cornwall.
Video would be used extensively, with science pupils able to play a game where they collect cards linked to archive clips.
"Not only will they play the games but they will be able to create puzzles for their friends as well," Mr Butler said. "That's why our strapline is going to be 'Explore, learn, create'."
Mr Butler said the name BBC Jam had been chosen after lengthy consultation with children because it could be pronounced by five-year-olds and carried connotations of musicians "jamming" rather than sounding educational.
Anne Sparrowhawk, an educational IT consultant involved in creating learning materials on statistics for BBC Jam, said the learner-centred nature of the website might disappoint teachers as it could prove challenging to use in whole-class lessons.
Professor Stephen Heppell, former director of the Ultralab centre for educational technology in East Anglia, has been advising the BBC on the website since the summer. He agreed that it would be more use for pupils outside lessons than in class but said it was "very, very cool stuff".
Russell Ingleby, ICT co-ordinator at Westmoor junior school in Kirklees, said that teachers would be happier with a simpler big collection of BBC clips and materials.
Mr Ingleby, a former chair of the Association for Information and Communications Technology in Education, said: "I was hoping the digital curriculum would be more of a resource base for teachers. If the focus is on pupils using computers at home then it is going to make the digital divide worse."
Teacher magazine 14
From January: maths and English for ages five to seven; geography and science for seven to nine; French for 11 to 14; and statistics and business studies for 14 to 16.
Later in 2006: English for seven to nine; geography for 11 to 14; design and technology for 11 to 14; history for five to seven and nine to 11; religious education for seven to nine; music for seven to nine; physical education for nine to 11; financial capability for 14 to 16; citizenship and its equivalent subjects in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland for nine to 11.
Also to be launched in 2006: field studies for those with severe learning difficulties and Welsh, Scots Gaelic and Irish Gaelic versions of several topics. 2007 and 2008: other subjects to be added.