A made-to-measure email system has boosted children's literacy in Inverclyde, writes Douglas Blane
For the young and inexperienced, venturing online alone is like setting sail in a ramshackle boat without a compass: they might land safely on an island of riches but they are more likely to founder on rocks.
What they really need is a sturdy, unsinkable ship and a wise and knowledgeable navigator. This is what Inverclyde education authority, with the help of teachers in three pilot schools, have designed and built for their youngest voyagers.
"A few years ago we carried out a wide-ranging consultation into long-term provision of information and communications technology for education," says acting head of service in education Tom Reid. "We found that teachers wanted an email system that would be structured and secure for kids of all ages. They were looking for a communication tool and, more importantly, an educational tool.
"We spent a while looking around for such a tool, in this country and abroad, and found there wasn't one. So we decided it was up to us to design and build it."
Developing the email system was part of a larger project aimed at delivering systems and software to meet all the authority's educational needs for the foreseeable future.
"To give you an idea of the scale of the project, the email solution is one work package out of 17," says Mr Reid. So the work was contracted out to corporate software development companies.
"We already had a data system for all the pupils and staff in our schools - SEEMIS - and the new system had to be integrated with that, so that data on individuals could be stored once and used many times.
"The whole thing has been made very simple for the end-users - teachers, pupils, school managers - but what's going on in the background is complex."
For primary pupils it means the computers offer them big, colourful symbols to click on, so that those whose co-ordination skills are still developing are not disadvantaged. They also know that every email they send or receive goes via their teacher, who can comment, edit and dispense words, ticks or gold stars of encouragement. She can also, when necessary, block inappropriate mail. The system draws attention to suspicious mail by consulting its list of approved addresses and suspect words.
This is one of the benefits of the system being developed in consultation with schools, says Lesley Dickson, a depute headteacher seconded as ICT staff tutor.
"At first the teachers had to open and check every email, but that took too long, so we modified it so they can do a quick preview, pass or reject the email and add comments. They can now scan the work of a class in minutes."
The email system has been designed to have three interfaces to suit children at different stages of primary education - with perhaps a fourth for those in nursery school - but has been tested most extensively over the past year in its Primary 1-3 manifestation, the cheerful and friendly Smilee Mail.
At St Francis Primary in Port Glasgow, Elizabeth McDowell's Primary 1 class began using Smilee Mail almost as soon as they started school.
"I know I was a bit daunted at the prospect of teaching the wee ones how to send emails," she says, "but they weren't. They loved it. We started with their names and 'Hi', and they made great progress.
"They used to come in and check if someone had sent them mail and were disappointed if they hadn't. It was instant motivation for reading and writing."
Information and communications technology was already part of learning and teaching at St Francis Primary, so headteacher Agnes Fallen was well aware of its motivating effect on children's learning at all ages. "I wasn't at all surprised by how fast even the wee ones picked it up," she says.
"One thing I liked was that the system developers listened to what teachers told them and made changes."
Staff tutor Lesley Dickson confirms that teachers have picked the system to bits during the pilot phase. "At one point we went back to the company with 82 suggested improvements. There was one woman in particular who needed a lot of support during training because she's not at all confident with technology. But she was the one who kept saying, 'No, that won't do for the kids. It will have to change.' She was hesitant about ICT all right but not about being a teacher."
SETT Introducing the Concepts of Email Within the Primary Curriculum, by Lesley Dickson and Jess Todd, Thursday, 12.45pm