Tripping the light fantastic;Cover feature

10th September 1999 at 01:00
3Schools are connecting to the National Grid for Learning and teachers are being trained, but what software, materials and support will be out there for them? George Cole investigates the role of good content for the cyberschool generation, followed by a subject-by-subject stock-check

There are three key elements to the successful use of information and communication technology (ICT)in schools, according to one of the key officials bringing in the government's National Grid for Learning: infrastructure, good practice and content. So says Owen Lynch, chief executive of the British Educational and Communication Technology Agency (BECTA).

UK schools are currently getting the infrastructure to connect them to the learning grid, and are about to get training to establish good practice, so what about the content, the materials and software they need to use with students? "This content should free our teachers and schools from some of the constraints of geography and time, while allowing more interactive and differentiated learning and teaching,"says Lynch.

The long-held media belief that content is king is only partially correct. Good content is an asset, but bad content is probably worse than no content at all. British schools are fortunate in having a large number of companies committed to producing high-quality educational content, from big players like Logotron, TAG, Granada Learning, Anglia Multimedia, Ablac and Sherston, to smaller companies such as Soft Teach, CSH and Topologika. Companies such as Semerc, Crick, Widgit and Inclusive Technology develop special needs software that is admired around the world. In addition to specialist educational software companies, mainstream developers such as Microsoft and Dorling Kindersley publish titles widely used at home and school.

Yet despite all this activity, Charles Clarke, the former education minister responsible for schools ICT, called for more good educational content in a speech at this year's BETT educational technology show. It has to be said that for many years, governments have focused more on putting hardware into schools than on content. With one or two honourable exceptions, DFEE-funded information and communications technology projects have been about putting boxes into classrooms rather than pouring good content into them. During the last 10 years, over pound;1.5 billion has been spent on, or allocated to, ICT-related educational projects, but comparatively little of this has been used for delivering content. That's why the decision to allocate 15 per cent of the funding for the National Grid for Learning (NGFL) for software purchase or development was welcomed.

Another positive sign is the recognition that it is better to identify areas where there is a shortage of good content and try and do something about it, than to simply drop a load of software into schools and hope that teachers will be able to find some good use for it. Three months ago, BECTA began a series of consultation exercises with curriculum groups, with the aim of identifying gaps in content provision. Rumours suggest that the government plans to invite software publishers to bid for funding that would be used to plug some of the gaps. Some software developers are currently re-versioning successful educational programs written for the old BBC computers.

But the issue is not just about having a sufficient amount of good software, says Nigel Ward, managing director of Granada Learning: "The education market is tough because some schools have staff who are computer-literate, confident about using software and open to new ideas. But others are only just starting on the learning curve. So you have some teachers who want all-singing, all-dancing multimedia titles with Internet links, and others who think that My World, a series of titles designed for younger pupils, is cutting edge stuff."

The key is good training, says Tony Ramsay, managing director of Soft Teach: "Any funding should be spent on training teachers in ICT," he says, "When teachers become more au fait with ICT, it will give them the confidence to buy software." Nigel Ward says the signs are that more and more teachers are becoming ICT-literate, with the result that features such as the Odyssey Scrapbook (which allows pupils to create multimedia presentations) being more widely used in classrooms.

It would also help teachers if they could test software before purchasing. A number of software publishers offer "try-before-you-buy" schemes that operate on a sale-or-return basis, but the dramatic reduction in the number of teacher centres and advisory teachers around the country means that class teachers have lost some of the best ways of learning about new content. That's why the development of the NGFL is so crucial, because it will give schools an opportunity to share their ideas and experiences on using content Anecdotal evidence suggests that schools are spending more on ICT. Unfortunately, DFEE surveys on ICT spending in schools have not distinguished between hardware and software expenditure, although this will be rectified in future surveys. But Bill Bonham, chairman and education director of Sherston Software, notes: "Schools are buying more software packages and site licences. It has improved a lot in the past few years." Ramsay adds that schools seem to be budgeting for software, a far cry from when software was seen as something that was bundled free with the hardware.

Some software developers like Soft Teach have focused on developing titles that help students and teachers use content: "We've always said that content is fine, but what do you do with it?" says Ramsay. Soft Teach's Local Studies program, for example, offers some content in the form of mapping data provided from Ordnance Survey, but the bulk of the content is provided by the pupil or teacher during research work. Mark East, Microsoft's education general manager says: "We believe the best people to develop content are teachers, and what they need are basic tools that help them structure the content."

Rosemary Mackinnon, Learn Centre manager at Beacon Community College in Sussex, used a feature on Microsoft's Encarta multimedia encyclopedia known as Research Organiser, to develop class worksheets on the French Revolution. "Rather than just getting the pupils to cut-and-paste things from an encyclopedia, we can prepare a structured lesson," she says.

Stephen Heppell, director of the UltraLab research unit at Anglia Polytechnic University, says: "Teachers have traditionally selected content and done their annotation, whether it be photocopy lesson plans, reading lists or whatever. We should be doing the same with ICT content. There will never be enough content for every school, so we panic and try to develop even more commercial content. What we should do is encourage schools to develop their own content and share it with others. TescoNet 2000 gets schools to research their locality and you have an amazing collection of material that you could never write yourself. We should be filling our servers up with opportunities rather than just content."

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