Midnight oil puts ICT on the boil

10th March 2000 at 00:00
Leon Cych puts the kids to bed and continues working until 2amI and this is his holiday. Dorothy Walker meets the man from 'the other DFEE' whose five years Internet experience is coming to fruition

He says he is currently enjoying a sabbatical, but Leon Cych is still to be found putting in a full teaching day in his primary classroom. The intriguing sabbatical only begins in the evenings, when this Early Years teacher works into the wee small hours, on a project that could revolutionise the way his colleagues employ information and communications technology (ICT) in schools throughout the country.

For 16 years Cych has been based at All Souls School, in London's West End, where he is not only known as a gifted teacher, but also as an inspired ICT co-ordinator. All Souls is one of these places where there always seems to be something exciting - and rewarding - happening on the technology front. And, for the imaginative Cych, the realisation of how exciting ICT could be came six years ago, when he began to think about the potential of the Internet.

The discovery came when he read the US bestseller, The Whole Internet User's Guide and Catalog by Ed Krol. "Nowadays most people know what the Internet is, but back in 1994 you had to think: what are they really getting at?" he says. "Slowly it dawned on me how powerful the Internet was. You could network people globally, and the resource base could be massive."

His first Internet efforts were focused not on the classroom but on another great passion: poetry. As founder of the Poetry London Newsletter, a listing of poetry events in the capital, he saw the Net as a great way to link fellow enthusiasts. And the fact that he lived next door to London's first cybercafe, Cyberia, spurred him on.

Once connected at home he quickly scored a coup for his school, securing space where All Souls could publish its own Web pages on a website run by a Chicago university. He says: "It was 1995, and we were involved in a race - we were the second school in the country to publish Web pages."

One of the first things to appear was The Ancient Greeks Virtual Tour, an electronic tour of the Greek artefacts in the British Museum, which still attracts a large following, particularly in the US West Coast universities. Cych had gone to the museum one day in search of material on the ancient Greeks, but found only one video. "So I asked if I could take a camera along. The museum was very co-operative, and I built the tour."

Having learned how to program in HTML (HyperText Markup Language) - the "glue" for Web pages - Cych decided to teach his pupils how to do it, too. "After two sessions they were building pages. hat opened my eyes to the fact that children can actually control this medium themselves, rather than the medium controlling them. That is the most powerful thing to come out of the Internet."

All Souls has since built a wealth of Web material, including an entry that won top prize in the first Students' and Teachers' Educational Materials competition, run by the Science Museum. The school was having a science week, so Cych published his plan for a visit to the museum, together with the work the pupils did after the visit, as a ready-to-use teacher's pack. He says: "I believe in sharing teaching resources online - if you show people that it can be done, they will be inspired to do the same. Even if only 40 teachers in the country were doing this, you could cover a vast area of the curriculum."

Now Cych is devoting his evenings of "sabbatical" to making his own vital contribution. His plan is to index the numeracy and literacy frameworks, and make a map which points teachers to useful electronic resources on the Web. He says: "Most of the good materials have been written by teachers. It is not hard to find good practice, and it beats me why no-one is making a map. The Government could employ three or four full-time people to keep making the links. But all the Government agencies have their own agendas, and this doesn't fall under anyone's remit."

In fact, Cych's project falls under the remit of the DFEE - that's not the Department for Education and Employment, but the lesser-known Department for Electronic Education, the name Cych has given his website. "I bought the domain name dfee.org three years ago," he says. "It was available, and I thought it would be cheeky to take it." And since his particular departmental budget is minimal - he is paying for this out of his own pocket - Cych has taken on commercial work in the evenings to raise funds. After arriving home from school and tucking his own children up in bed, he often works until 2am writing Web courseware for companies.

As well as the map, Cych hopes his earnings will help him create a series of tiny Web-based software applications to plug any gaps in teaching resources. "I can write them almost as quickly as worksheets," he says.

The fruits of his labours will go online for all teachers to share. "This is not a commercial enterprise," says Cych, "although it would be nice to find a sponsor." In the meantime, he launches into the next shift of his 20-hour working day.

And how is the poetry coming along? "I've had to put that aside," he concedes, "for the time being."

Department for Electronic Educationhttp:dfee.orgAll Souls http:atschool.eduweb.co.ukallsouls

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