A virtual school exists at Homework High, Channel 4's online homework question-and-answer service. But, as Debbie Davies reports, the teachers and pupils are real SECTION:Features NO PHYSICAL FILEIt's Sunday, 6.30pm, and Diane Thompson, a retired history teacher, is in the hot seat. The pressure mounts, the seconds tick by and she has to decide: "Is this my final answer?" Diane can't ask the audience, go 5050 or phone a friend because she is the friend and this is the alternative Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?: Channel 4's Homework High website, named best online learning website at this year's Bafta awards.
Homework High promises to answer students' homework queries within 20 minutes. The virtual school day runs from 4pm to 9pm, with an hour's break between 5.30pm and 6.30pm. It takes place in teachers' dining rooms, bedrooms and studies - wherever they happen to have their computer. Students come mostly from Years 7, 8 and 9.
Diane Thompson's online session lasts two hours, during which time she gamely takes a risk on what she knows and what she doesn't. Her desk is weighed down by the reference books she uses to double-check her answers. Surprisingly, the web plays little part in her research. "The Internet can be slow and I find it difficult to navigate," she says. "For me, reference books are quicker."
Ms Thompson joined Homework High almost a year ago, after she replied to a recruitment ad. Teachers were invited to answer a question on their subject by email; those answering accurately were invited to join, and the team now includes about 100 teachers, most of whom also have day jobs in the classroom. For these extra teaching shifts, they earn pound;20 an hour.
The entire recruitment and training process takes place by e-mail and phone. Like all staff, Diane Thompson has yet to meet anyone face to face from Homework High.
Since she satisfied herself that the Internet actually did enable children with homework queries to connect to a teacher, Ms Thompson has never looked back. Occasionally, a time-waster joins the queue and is swiftly shown the door. As Ms Thompson says: "It is less easy to deal with distractions in the classroom."
She may not be able to pick out her students in a crowd, but recognises regular visitors by their style of question. Plenty of questions are of the pound;100 quiz show variety and are quickly dealt with. But then she gets a citizenship scholar asking: "How is Britain governed?". She says: "I don't want to do the homework, particularly coursework, so the answer needs to guide them and make them think."
On Tuesday evenings, Judy Clark sits in the study of her remote cottage perched on a Cornish clifftop and takes questions on maths. She jokes:
"When I started I was too busy juggling the windows on my desktop to have time to answer my partner when he asked if I wanted a cup of tea." Maths is a busy subject and only half an hour into the session the server has taken 200 questions, which is all the team of teachers on duty can be expected to complete during an evening.
Teachers are meant to take questions from the top of the list, so the student who has waited the longest is answered first. But this does not always happen. Judy Clark says: "We once had a sequence question that no one could answer, and it sat at the top of the list for ages." Only when one teacher noticed a typing error in the question did the sequence become clear and the student receive an answer.
Apart from the web pages, there is a bulletin board exclusively for teachers. The most recent discussion was on handling questions that teachers suspect are GCSE coursework. Judy Clark says: "Every session, we get students worried that they just don't understand maths, especially algebra." All she and her team can do is deal with the worry. The notion that the wizardry of computers can somehow overcome years of misunderstanding in a classroom is absurd. "The mental picture we have when someone posts a question is of a child, taught by a colleague, who knocks on the staffroom door and asks for help. How we reply online is the same as how we would reply in school."
Having left teaching two years ago for a career in IT, Ms Clark regards textbooks as too dry for some. "There are useful websites that we can direct students to that demonstrate maths in a funkier way and teach at the same time," she says.
After 20 years as an examiner, Jonathan Benjamin, head of English at Hitchin boys school in Hertfordshire, spends four hours a week taking questions on English - and is never taken by surprise.
Asked for the umpteenth time by a student, "How do I make my autobiography more interesting?" he resists posting a Chris Woodhead-style response - "get a life". Like the former chief inspector, he is critical of teaching standards and is not surprised that students are sometimes confused by their homework. He says: "The bulk of questions use the same wording that students have been given, and what teachers are setting is not always well formulated."
Mr Benjamin provides a safety net by giving an alternative, clearer approach. Few of his answers include links to other websites. Although he joined Homework High to further his knowledge of the Internet, he has found little material worth referring students to. In fact, across all the subjects, the usefulness of links pales against the usefulness of plain text answers, written with virtually no multimedia embellishments, by teachers.
But despite the professionals' enthusiasm, it does seem bizarre that to find out where Antarctica is, or to translate a word into French, kids will log on to a PC, search for the Homework High website, enter their name, age and e-mail address, type the question, note their question number, log off, log back on later, enter their question number and then, and only then, read their answer. Wouldn't it be easier to pick up a printed atlas or open a dictionary?
Paul Ashton, commissioning editor at 4Learning and the inspiration behind the site, thinks not. Mr Ashton's says his "club" would have been invaluable when he was at school and it is as legitimate for a student to use the site to ask, "Who won the battle of Hastings?" as it is to ask, "Why appeasement?". Nevertheless, three out of four visitors stay on the site for less than 10 minutes, suggesting they come not to browse the library, nor to talk in the chat rooms, but to lodge a question, then come back later for their answer.
Since its launch in January, the site has had 630,000 visitors, 30 per cent of whom have returned. A core of about 15,000 frequent users ask most of the questions, but it has a big transient population, with 81 per cent of users asking only one question.
What Channel 4 has produced is a site that delivers what books cannot. "I wanted to avoid putting more huge chunks of information on the web," says Mr Ashton. "Our archive of 22,000 questions and answers has lots of potential. We are thinking of publishing guides like 'The 500 Most Asked Questions in Physics'." With this in mind, the site has recently changed its focus to personally answering only new questions - post a question that is already archived with an answer and you will be referred to the library. Aside from his publishing spin-offs, sponsorship covers a third of the site's costs, which roughly matches the production budget for making a schools series of 10 programmes.
Homework High neatly illustrates our times. It utilises the most modern of communication tools, and marries well with the Government's emphasis on school-home partnerships. For parents who regard homework as a status symbol that confirms their children go to a good school, but for whom it can be a source of stress and argument, the site must be a gift - your own subject teacher to answer your child's query at the click of a mouse.
SEARCH FOR AN ANSWER
You will need to check Homework High's timetable to find out when live question-and-answer sessions are running on your subject before posting a question. The site covers English, maths, science, history, geography and French for ages seven to 16. The library archives all questions and answers and can be searched at any time.
Of the other similar sites, Homework Help from the Star Tribune newspaper group in the US is useful for factual queries. The site is a question-and-answer referral service with replies posted online within 24 hours.
We posted several queries, all of which were answered, and Star Tribune's encyclopedia, information and almanac resources meant its links were generally excellent and pinpointed resources rather than sending us to a home page.
www.startribune.comstonlinehtmlspecialhomework The Internet search engine Ask (formerly Ask Jeeves) is running what sounds like an interesting experiment on its US site. Students can post a question in advance, and log on at an appointed time for 10 minutes' free tutorial using the live Internet relay chat software more usually found running chat sites. The tutor shows how the student can use the Internet to find answers,.
www.ajforkids.comhomework Most other sites we looked at relied on anyone happening across the site to provide answers to questions posted by students. Most of these sites collect students' e-mail addresses, which are sold on. Students can easily be short-changed, ending up with junk e-mail but no help with their homework.
Homework Elephant, a National Grid for Learning-approved site, offers help on this basis. The home page invites anyone logging on to the site to befriend "lost souls" and help with their homework. We e-mailed the person answering questions on geography, who turned out to be a director of a geographical reference publisher.
The site also posts "biology" questions such as: "Does it hurt first time?" together with students' e-mail addresses. It claims to hide email addresses although we found pages of them, so teachers thinking about recommending any help sites to their students should check them carefully first.