Online learning - a closed book?
David Blunkett has a Big Idea. An online curriculum, available to all, which will allow children to learn at any time, almost anywhere. In this brave new online future, spelled out in a government consultation paper earlier this month, pupils will be able to look again at the day's lessons when they get home, possibly using their digital televisions.
There will be no more cries of "but I left the textbook at school". Instead, if young Fred or Freda was too busy daydreaming to grasp the intricacies of how the lungs work during double science, he or she can re-examine the three-dimensional moving diagram the teacher used, time and again if necessary, until it sinks in.
A huge expansion in the availability of computers in schools will allow everyone full access to the information superhighway, according to the Government's document. After all, the rate of spending on computers for schools has risen steeply.
In April 1998, according to the Green Paper, just 6,500 schools were connected to the Internet. Now the figure has risen to more than 20,000 - 98 per cent of secondary schools and 86 per cent of primary schools.
So, does this spell the death of the textbook? Will the school of the future be a streamlined, paperless place where pupils sit in front of their laptops watching a teacher who uses an interactive digital screen instead of a blackboard or whiteboard?
Not just yet, it seems. For although the digital age is arriving in schools, it is doing so more slowly than those headline figures might suggest. And even the most fervent advocates of information technology cannot foresee a day when books and paper will disappear from our classrooms.
A recent survey carried out by the British Educational Suppliers Association spells out the picture in more detail. It estimates that spending on computer hardware reached pound;217 million in 1999-2000, but adds that spending on the software that could potentially replace books was just pound;39.6m, including independent schools, which spend more.
Compare that to the pound;174m which the survey says was spent on traditional books, and the picture for the old-style publishing market looks more rosy.
For each pupil, primaries now spend an average of pound;3.30 per year on software and pound;18.98 - almost six times as much - on books. In secondaries, the average is pound;4.75 on software and pound;22.45 on books.
Although there is more money for both types of resource than there was five years ago, books spending in primaries has risen by almost 30 per cent, while software spending has risen by just under 26 per cent.
Ray Barker, director of BESA, adds that of the 851,000 computers now being used in schools, about a quarter were more than five years old and probably not suitable for online learning. Furthermore, his organisation's survey suggests that while most schools do have an Internet connection, only about half of those with such a facility make it available to all pupils.
One connected school in 10 restricts Internet access to teachers and administrative staff. So the picture is not quite as impressive as the Government suggests.
Things are improving though, Mr Barker says. Tony Blair has promised that by 2004 there will be one computer for every five pupils in secondaries, and one for every eight in primary schools. A massive pound;1.8 billion has been spent on computer installation in schools since Labour came to power in 1997.
But Mr Barker believes the idea of every child spending the school day plugged into a terminal is "a 1960s picture of the year 2000".
"I think 40 years ago everyone saw it like that. But I don't think anyone believes now that computers are the only way forward.
"I think the paper medium will be with us for a long time, but computers will provide added value," he says.
Despite this caution, there is a great deal happening in the field of online learning. Already, Thomas Telford School in Shropshire is offering an online information technology general national vocational qualification course for schools and has been given a further pound;800,000 by the HSBC bank to develop online maths.
The Kingshurst City Technology College in Solihull is piloting online GNVQ science, and Oxford University has joined forces with Intel to set up Kar2ouche, which offers an interactive Macbeth and Hamlet, and which is developing further programmes in humanities subjects.
Kingshurst, through its non-profit-making company 3Es, has been overwhelmed by the response to its science course, for which each participating school pays pound;3,000. Although it had intended to take only about 40 schools in its first year, around 65 have already signed up and 100 will be on board by September, according to the college's ICT area manager, Nick Lamb.
Mr Lamb says this new style of learning gives schools extra flexibility as well as making learning more exciting for pupils.
"Some schools are taking it on even though they haven't got a lot of IT access," he says. "They know they can use the materials just to help teachers prepare their lessons if they want to. We're not trying to take science out of the laboratory, but this way pupils can experiment online as well."
While he is enthusiastic about the possibilities of online learning, he adds that the quality of courses available in some subjects such as history and geography is not yet as high as it needs to be.
But there is more to online learning than these courses, developed and delivered by long-standing educational institutions. A whole range of providers are now offering education on the Internet. Almost every traditional school book publisher is moving into online learning, offering Internet versions of established materials or developing new, computer-friendly lessons. Information technology firms are doing the same.
Among the best-known of the latter is Research Machines, which offers a wide range of services. The most widely-used, according to Steve Bolingbroke, managing director of RM Learning, is the Living Library, which allows schools access to a variety of photographs, video clips and articles from a range of publishers. But RM Learning also offers maths through a product called Maths Quest, and both literacy and numeracy resources through a programme called Success Maker as well as offering useful Internet links.
But while RM may be ahead of the game, the Department for Education and Employment acknowledges that the quality of some of these services is variable. Some of the lists of links on offer contain useful information, but others may be inaccessible to younger pupils or even unsuitable.
The Government aims to help schools by encouraging the development of a single "portal" through which they can access a range of good-quality learning materials. At the moment, there are a host of different companies.
One such provider is digitalbrain.com, through which the Kingshurst science course is accessed by schools. Director Paul Hammond says that in future teachers will be able to use such services to track their pupils' progress, administering and marking tests online as well as setting work. But even he does not believe books are dead.
"If you have the time you can access text on virtually anything. But I still read books and we all read papers. What we are doing is complementary to them," he says.
THE MAJOR PLAYERS
Schools and universities: Kingshurst CTC, Solihull - science GNVQ.www.sciencelessons.co.uk
Thomas Telford CTC - ICT GNVQ, developing maths. www.gnvqict.comp40 Kar2ouche - Oxford University with Intel, English and humanities. www.imed.co.uk
IT publishers Granada Learning, formerly CD Roms but developing online courses. www.granada-learning.co.uk
RM Learning. Range of courses and useful links. www.rm.com
digitalbrain.com Courses and links. www.digitalbrain.com
National Grid for Learning, Government links to information and resources for teachers. www.ngfl.gov.uk
Almost every major school book publisher is developing online learning material. Some examples: Heinemann. Includes key stage 2 history resources, interactive assessments. www.heinemann.co.uk
Pearson. Wide variety of interactive products.www.pearson.co.uk
Nelson Thornes. A range of resources including online revision. www.nelson.co.uk
'SOFTWARE VERSUS BOOKS' table NOT available on this database.