Unlimited resources

1st November 2002 at 00:00
Chris Johnston examines what the Curriculum Online initiative could mean for schools when it finally goes live

In December 2001, you may recall stories about Prime Minister Tony Blair and Education Secretary Estelle Morris travelling to Greensward College in Essex to announce Curriculum Online - the pound;50 million scheme aimed at creating the "classroom of the future". The date of the launch has already been put back resulting in confusion in schools and the BBC's proposals to offer free resources through the site have been widely criticised by the software industry. So why did the Government decide to launch this initiative and when can schools expect to be able to take advantage of it?

After pouring some pound;1 billion into improving computer access and connecting schools and colleges to the internet since it was elected in 1997, the Government was keen to increase the return on its investment by encouraging greater use of ICT by teachers in the classroom.

One of the barriers to achieving this goal was seen to be a lack of suitable resources for teachers to use in their lessons, so the Department for Education and Skills (DfES) devised Curriculum Online as a solution.

"If we really go ahead with this new technology now, the kids will learn better and faster and will get better jobs when they leave school," Mr Blair said when the scheme was announced.

The announcement followed a consultation held during 2001, to which educational institutions, individuals and industry made submissions. The DfES said that most people supported the main thrust of the vision.

The official line is that the initiative will be a "web-based showcase of curriculum- relevant, digital learning resources providing access to both free and priced learning resources". The website will form an electronic shop window, where approved suppliers display their wares and teachers can base selections on publisher guidance, independent evaluations and teacher reviews, which will be carried out independently.

Schools will be able to purchase software directly from the website, using electronic learning credits, but initially they will only be able to choose what they want and order it from the supplier. Learning credits funding of pound;30 million has been allocated for the period until April, with another pound;20 million then being distributed.

Information about the credits has been sent to local education authorities, as they were due to be available to schools from September. However, severe delays have resulted in the DfES allowing schools to get and use their credits to buy digital materials before the new portal is ready. A formula based on a fixed sum per school plus a further allowance per pupil will give schools between pound;1,400 and pound;6,700.

Software companies have had to "tag" their materials to make them easily searchable in a database that is divided by key stage, subject and topic. Teething problems with this technology led to a delay in the launch, with some companies finding the tagging difficult. A date had not been confirmed as TES Online went to press and a DfES spokesperson said testing was still being carried out.

One of the most controversial components is the BBC's proposed pound;150 million Digital Curriculum, still awaiting approval by Culture Secretary Tessa Jowell as TES Online went to press. Its free resources, which will eventually cover all aspects of the national curriculum, will sit alongside the commercial offerings and help draw teachers to the website.

The BBC's plans have upset both software firms and publishers because they fear the market for educational resources will be decimated as schools decide to opt for the free materials and stop making purchases. The broadcaster has argued that a range of safeguards will prevent that occurring and help to expand the market in the coming years.

In August, Estelle Morris announced that Curriculum Online would be extended to the post-16 sector with the creation of College Online. There is no doubt that the initiative is ground-breaking and could help make finding digital resources suitable for the classroom much easier for teachers, thus making lessons more interesting and exciting.

As with all ambitious ventures, teething problems are inevitable and it's impossible to predict whether Curriculum Online will achieve the Government's aims.

Opposite: George Cole talks to digital publishers about their hopes and fears for Curriculum Online.

* For and against

There is little opposition to the overall concept of Curriculum Online, the Department for Education and Skills' initiative. The e-learning credits will give schools extra money to buy digital learning materials and make finding relevant software easier for teachers. "It's a natural extension of the National Grid for Learning," according to Nigel Ward, managing director of Granada Learning. It also has the support of NAACE, the computer advisers' association.

Opposition is centred on the BBC's Digital Curriculum, a key component of Curriculum Online. A consortium of software firms and publishers, called the Digital Learning Alliance, was formed earlier this year in a bid to persuade the Government to stop the BBC's plans from going ahead.

"Our industry could be decimated," says Dominic Savage, co-chair of the allianceand the director-general of the British Educational Suppliers Association.

The BBC rejects these arguments, insisting the Digital Curriculum is about it "making a sizeable contribution alongside the commercial software sector", according to Michael Stevenson, the BBC's joint head of factual and learning.

Contacts

Curriculum Online

www.dfes.gov.ukcurriculumonline

BESADigital Learning Alliancewww.besanet.org.uknewsdigcurriculum.htm The BBC's application to the Department of Culture, Media and Sport

www.culture.gov.ukcreativedigital_curriculum.html

www.dfes.gov.ukcurriculumonline

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