If the Internet doesn't have the learning package you are looking for, why not create your own site? Douglas Blane reports on one school that did just that
Like Cyrano de Bergerac's improvised insults, school websites offer endless variety: descriptive ("Our school is on the braes with views across the river to the Ochils"), intriguing ("Our use of belleplates has created quite a bit of interest"), proud ("We approach the millennium as one of the great schools in Scotland"), modest ("We are the smallest school in town") and grateful ("I'd just like to say hello to everyone in the music department, without whom I wouldn't be doing anything today").
Some school websites consist of no more than contact details, a few facts and figures and a staff photograph. Others are very ambitious and have clearly taken some dedicated person many months of effort and ingenuity. One such is that of the physics department of McLaren High in Callander, Stirling, which has been devised and created by teacher Alastair Morrow.
"It started as a way of getting sets of worked solutions to everyone in my Higher class," he says. "At the time I had no experience of creating a website but it didn't take long to learn.
"Essentially there are two steps. First you create a file using word processing or publishing software, which has an option to save in HTML, the language of the Web. You have now produced a web page.
"Then you need to find out how to upload it, which means send it to a company that is permanently online so that people can access it. Your Internet service provider will usually let you do that."
Two and a half years later, the contents of Mr Morrow's site - news, games, worked examples, quizzes, animations and links to other appropriate sites for 5-14, Standard grade, Higher and Advanced Higher students - clearly show that those first steps were followed by many more.
"I couldn't say how many hours I've spent on it. You get hooked on a wee problem and just keep working at it until you've puzzled it out," he says.
"Flash animation probably took the longest. Lots of websites were moving over to it, so I got a book and worked my way through it. I'm reasonably adept now and I've been helping some of our other teachers."
Besides a physicist's fondness for problem-solving, the impetus for all this website development, says Mr Morrow, was the absence of anything online that would do the job for his pupils.
"We're still way behind the Americans in this country. The best site for physics, I think, is by Glenbrook High School, Illinois, which has wonderful animations and tutorials."
Using a tracker program, Mr Morrow can monitor visitors to his website and learn which parts of it are most popular. Among younger pupils the clear winner is a link to the virtual dissection of a frog. "We can't do that in science any more, but the animation is amazing. You use a pair of scissors to cut and fold back the skin and pin it down. Then you delve into its digestive and reproductive systems. The kids love it."
Following the success of the physics website, other McLaren High teachers have been learning how to put subject content on the school site. Maths teacher John Slavin has made most progress to date. For him, too, the initial target was his Higher class. "I tried in vain to find good line-by-line worked examples on the Web.
"My site isn't complete, by any means, but I'm happy with the Higher pages, and I've just posted a lot of 5-14 material which I set up using a package that's free to download called WebQuestions.
"What's interesting is that other teachers - in biology and languages - have seen it, agreed that it is fantastic and are now using it to develop their own materials."
For McLaren High's headteacher, May Sweeney, subject content on the Web is particularly useful in a school that covers 400 square miles, many of them rugged. "We had to close early one day because of snow, but we had kids about to start their prelims. They didn't lose out because they were able to access support material and advice on the website."
Other benefits, such as support for learning and differentiation, are equally relevant to a city or rural school. "Groups of pupils can be using material on the website while the teacher works with the rest of the class." she says.
"Youngsters respond to enthusiastic teachers and the physics and maths websites are real motivators, for boys in particular.
"They have also motivated our staff in other subjects, who are interested in different ways of learning and in getting a body of work on the Web that will stay there and can be built upon."
WebQuestions 2 is free from www.clever-software.tk www.physics.mclarenhigh.com www.maths.mclarenhigh.com
In the coming months TES Scotland Plus will highlight a variety of school websites, focusing on different subjects and examples of good practice. If you have a good website, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org