Splash out

26th September 2003 at 01:00
A lesson on ponds is just one example of how broadband has transformed a school, says Jack Kenny

The pond is right there, full-screen, with the children about as close as they can be without getting wet. The lesson is about ponds. The video (with a narration tailored to the age of the children) fills the interactive whiteboard. The core of the work, on the interdependence of various life-forms, has frogs, toads, newts and dragonflies moving across the water.

Huma Ali, the Year 4 teacher, says: "The video does not just look at the surface of the pond but goes under that water so that the children can see views that would be almost impossible for us to arrange. I can't think of any other software that is as sharply focused. We have a habitat module in Year 4 so it fits well. There is a great deal of information that is carefully graded."

The material is provided on the school network by Espresso Education, using an effective way of providing high-quality resources (rivals include Knowledge Box from Pearson Broadband). Espresso broadcasts resources each week, either by satellite or through the local broadband consortium, and these are stored on a computer in the school. The high-quality content is downloaded overnight, so there is no wait. Knowledge Box is a large server with many resources installed and is kept constantly updated.

Many promises are made on behalf of technology. But the promise of broadband - high-quality, focused resources available on every machine in every classroom on demand - has been largely unfulfilled so far. At Norwood Green School in Hounslow it is not a fantasy - these resources are in all classrooms.

ICT co-ordinator Bina Mistry Sharna explains how Espresso is used: "We have two networked machines in each room and a mobile projector that is used from class to class. One classroom has an interactive whiteboard that is linked to a laptop. We have a computer (server) that is linked to a satellite dish. The service from Espresso is a mixture of curriculum-focused and up-to-date material that is sent to us every Wednesday so that we can start to use it on Thursday. That material, plus all that has been sent before, is available to every teacher and every child across the school network.

"We can refer to the past materials. In fact, we use archive and current material equally. Espresso plays a huge role in terms of us developing our teaching and learning. There is a virtual staffroom element that is available to teachers in school and at home. The teachers at Norwood Green School find that is a great help with planning the various curriculum subjects."

Bina Mistry Sharna has particular praise for the way Espresso dealt with 911. "The attack had implications for a mixed community such as ours and we had to do a lot of work. Year 6 pupils did a multimedia project on the implications and what it would mean for the future. Espresso provided fantastic footage of the day-to-day events: each of the video clips had a narrator talking through the events and posing questions - higher-order, thinking-skills questions - to the pupils. There were also newspaper articles that explained the events from a different perspective. The children were able to lift relevant parts of the videos into their own presentations and this helped them form their own opinions. The language of the videos and the other texts is carefully targeted and often there are two graded versions of newspaper articles."

Espresso's flexibility in the classroom appeals to her: "It can be used on a single monitor with children sitting round as a start to a lesson. We can have it in large format through a projector; articles can be printed from it; each child can have a copy; we can cut and paste into interactive PowerPoint presentations; hyperlinks can be made. It is important to realise that we can work with the material as well as consult it. We can put a link to a video that has been downloaded on to our server into a Word document that we prepare for pupils to use. The document can say something like, 'Watch this video and then answer the following questions.' " Norwood Green is a multicultural school and teachers have found the new RE module particularly welcome. "There are whole sections on Hinduism, Islam and Sikhism. You can watch videos of how people from these faiths live and worship, with links into the festivals they would celebrate."

Huma Ali enjoys the literacy section, where there is "a huge focus on authors. You can click on an author's name and it takes you to an interview with the author about a book they have written, and the author reads some extracts from the book. It makes it all more interesting for the pupils.

There is an art module that was useful; it was about sculpture. There was a video clip with a series of activities. This was linked to a QCA module.

The children watched it and then went off to do their own work.

"The work of classroom assistants with small groups of children is enhanced by the resource. Teachers don't have to prepare the activities; the staff at Espresso have done that. We just need to ensure that the activities are appropriate."

Bina Mistry Sharna adds: "It is important to realise that Espresso is not one piece of software - it is a whole archive. Children across the school can use the network to access the many resources that are there on the servers. Differentiation is important; that shows up well in the maths section - every article has differentiated activities."

Neither the ICT co-ordinator nor the Year 4 teacher would contemplate teaching without this online resource. Bina Mistry Sharna sums it up: "In a school like ours we have a wide range of ability. It is multicultural and covers many learning styles. We can use it to teach research skills. Above all, it is motivating."

Both teachers are convinced that ICT in this form takes pupils into the realms of higher-level skills. Children don't have to draw graphs - the computer can do that. The skill lies in interpreting them, not drawing them, and deciding which graph best represents a situation. Schools such as Norwood Green are in the vanguard, able to receive high-quality resources and, more importantly, knowing what to do with them.

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