Live and kicking

14th March 2003 at 00:00
The talk is over and the Government's much-vaunted schools' portal is finally up and running. So does the end product justify all the hype?

In December 2001, Tony Blair and the DfES announced the development of a "groundbreaking service" that would "transform learning in schools" and "help teachers spend more time teaching and motivating pupils". That new initiative was Curriculum Online.

Strip away the hyperbole and Curriculum Online is still a develop- ment that could transform ICT in the classroom. Whereas past educational ICT projects have focused on hardware, this is an online portal that focuses on digital learning resources, a term that encompasses CD-Roms, online services, pupil assessment software, interactive videos and much more.

The resources are a mix of free and paid-for content (materials), some with evaluations by TEEM (Teachers Evaluating Educational Multimedia). Colin Hughes, managing director of Learnthings (behind www.learn.co.uk), says:

"We're seeing a big shift into content and the usability of ICT." David Bennett, director of REM, adds: "It's an opportunity for ICT to be used as a tool for children to learn with."

Russell Prue, the DfES's evangelist for Curriculum Online, says: "The idea is to provide teaching staff with an increased choice of digital resources and help them find materials that suit their particular needs and those of their learners. It's about empowering teachers to be able to find resources."

Curriculum Online went live in January, several months later than planned because of the time it took to develop the portal's sophisticated search engine. When you use a conventional internet search engine to look for a piece of software, you often end up with a long list of results, most of which are irrelevant to your needs. Curriculum Online's search engine is much more accurate because its data has been meta-tagged, a system that allows precise links to be made to pieces of information. As a result, the search engine lets you find resources by year, subject, programme of study, QCA schemes of work and topics. You can also refine your search; to include your computer's operating system or file type, for example.

Once the resources have been found, the search engine can provide additional information, such as whether the resource is free or paid for and whether it has a TEEM evaluation. There is also a product description, and one mouse click should take to you to the supplier's website where you can see more information and find out how to order.

Prue says Curriculum Online is keen to encourage teacher participation. For example, if you register on the portal, you can add your own product reviews; at the time of writing, teacher reviews were being posted (200 TEEM evaluations were in place). There's also a feedback facility for making comments and suggestions. As the saying goes, if you don't ask, you don't get and if you don't tell, they don't know. Teacher feedback will be crucial to the development of Curriculum Online.

The Government also provided schools with pound;50 million of electronic learning credits (eLCs) to purchase resources on the portal (see opposite page). These will be topped up to reach a sum of pound;330 million over three years.

The educational software community has overwhelmingly given Curriculum Online and the eLC scheme a warm welcome. David Eccles, creative director of Softease, says: "We estimate that 40-50 per cent of our business is being funded by eLCs." And Bev Laing, a member of RM's Curriculum Online project team, believes eLCs will "encourage schools to think about their whole software portfolio and consider software that helps solve an issue, such as raising standards or whole-class teaching".

Another goal for the portal is to empower teachers to find, select and use digital learning resources that can help them in the classroom. As Catherine Worth, spokesperson for ACITT, the Association for IT in Education puts it: "You wouldn't want an English teacher buying the history books."

But while many applaud any effort to encourage more teachers to use online services and digital resources, the Curriculum Online search engine has been criticised for being too sophisticated and not user-friendly.

Brian Kerslake, managing director of Topologika, says: "It's not easy to navigate and involves a lot of clicking. It would be good, for example, if you could limit the number of hits." The search engine was also designed so users could not search for resources by supplier or for free content.

However, results can be sorted into free and paid for. Prue admits the search engine is designed for teachers who know what they're looking for, but says it will be refined over time.

Roger Young, managing director of Kudlian Software, fears smaller companies could lose out as TEEM evaluations have to be paid for - another reason why teacher reviews will form an important element of the portal. Stephen Heppell, director of Ultralab at Anglia Polytechnic University, hopes content developed by teachers will be eligible for purchasing by eLCs. Many software companies are also concerned that the BBC's Digital Curriculum will provide lots of free material on the Curriculum Online portal, to the detriment of commercial suppliers.

Most of these issues should be resolved with time and as Chris Thatcher, director of educational development at Goal, says: "Curriculum Online is a developmental process rather than a final result."

Prue hints at future developments including moves to target a broader audience and an e-commerce system for eLCs. As such, then, Curriculum Online represents the first step and not the final destination of a new journey for ICT in education.

COL: the positives

* Offers a one-stop shop to carefully selected digital learning resources

* Portal provides direct links to educational suppliers

* Both free and commercial software available

* Designed for all teachers in all subject areas

* Offers a sophisticated search engine for finding precise resources

* Includes evaluations and the facility for teachers to contribute their own via the Virtual Teacher Centre

* Encourages teacher participation via online reviews and feedback facility

* pound;330 million electronic learning credits (eLCs) scheme allows purchasing of software on the portal

* Does not require broadband access

* Wish-list facility allows details of interesting resources to be stored

* Considerable scope for evolution and development

and the negatives

* Search engine can appear overly complicated and doesn't allow for simpler searches

* Not all resources include evaluations

* No bulletin board or forum for teachers to exchange views

* eLCs are not yet "electronic", ie they can't be used like a credit card to buy online. For now they are real cash that comes with the Standards Fund.

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