Wanted: a simple, clear virtual teachers' centre, writes Jack Kenny
Virtual Teacher Centre websites are springing up like weeds in high summer. Most teachers, however, want coherence and simplicity and not competing websites.
Picture the teacher new to the Internet who discovers there are centres on every virtual street corner. Which one to go to? The answer ought to be simple. Start at the official one - this should reflect the Government's priorities for its National Grid for Learning and have curricular and other content to make it the first port of call for teachers.
The official prototype Virtual Teacher Centre (VTC) has already been built (see address, right) by the British Educational Communications and Technology Agency (BECTA), the replacement for the National Council for Educational Technology. The midnight oil was burnt in Coventry to get this up and running in time for its launch in January. New servers were bought and technicians waited nervously to see if its beefy capacity could cope with thousands of schools connecting at the same time (schools have already been testing the site).
The brief for the VTC comes from the government document, Connecting The Learning Society where it lays down what it should contain. BECTA seems to have carried it out to the letter. Design is good, navigation is clear and the site is easy to use - an impressive job considering the time they have had.
The centre has some splendid new content. The work that has been done on literacy is excellent and I would recommend anyone to go to the site where they will find material that is precisely aimed at the latest concerns with literacy.
Those who knew the old NCET site will recognise much of the other material which has been transferred. Curriculum materials are excellent if you work in geography or modern languages. The challenge is down for BECTA to fill the gaps.
The BBC's Learning Station is a teacher centre in all but name. There are some fine materials here, beautifully presented. It is not all focused on teachers - revision support, for example, helps students and families too. The materials have curriculum relevance and vivacity, making it a must for anyone in education.
RM, BT, and Microsoft are a powerful combination. Separately RM and BT have good material but most of it is under lock and subscription. Here I didn't find much that was new but I was not totally disappointed, even though some material is promotional. Getting free access to the newspaper archive on RM's Living Library is a bonus. But the clashing design of the three companies causes problems.
Margaret Bell, who is managing the project, is conscious of the irritation that some teachers feel about the multiplicity of centres. "The intention is that the provision of the centres is best seen, according to the Department for Education and Employment, as three concentric circles. The inner circle will be the BECTA centre with largely government information. The second ring will be free materials provided by the private sector. The outer ring will be subscription services such as Internet for Learning and CampusWorld.
"There have been energetic discussions with the DFEE and we have asked them to define each area more clearly. We need to know the rules."
So now we have three sites, not including NetYear and TeacherNet. What we really need is coherence and sites with style and panache. We do not need replication of content. If you trawl around you will find enough to make you mildly optimistic. Already it is possible to see that we could be starting to create places that will underpin the work of teachers and that will be as good, if not better than, most other places on the Internet.
The official VTC is at: www.vtc.org.uk BBC Learning Station: www.bbc.co.ukeducationschools BTRMMicrosoft: www.vtcentre.com