Online teachers' centres are here, but is their information relevant to you? Debbie Davies investigates.
Spreading information is what the Net does best and many information centres you would once have walked into can now be visited in cyberspace. Those in education are no different. As its name suggests, a VTC, or virtual teachers' centre, is the online equivalent of a teachers' centre. Currently there are four centres - one each for teachers in England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales - although access to each centre is freely available to all.
The biggest of the four centres is run by the British Educational and Communications Technology Agency (BECTA) as part of the NGFL and it hogs the generic title VTC. It allows teachers to share ideas and best practice as part of their professional development as well as check conference dates, source useful addresses and, most importantly, find high-quality learning resources to use in the classroom. Throughout, the emphasis is on pedagogy.
Andre Wagstaff, BECTA's head of grid content and architecture, says: "We didn't want to end up with the entire NGFL inside our VTC." So to avoid any potential conflict learning materials available in the centre have arrived from a different route to those in the NGFL's more general Learning Resource Index, a feature visited by one in four visitors to the grid. "The index provides an avenue for anyone who has a resource to share. We just carry out commonsense checking," explains Wagstaff. By comparison, learning resources in the virtual teachers' centre are, in most cases, the products of collaboration between BECTA and the subject associations.
In theory, it's hardly surprising that teachers are turning more and more to virtual teacher centres. As Martin Tibbetts, head teacher of Cheslyn Hay Primary in Staffordshire, explains: "Material on the Internet is proliferating at a phenomenal rate. General search engines return an unmanageable number of responses so a specialist agency as a point of reference is increasingly the way teachers will access the Internet." In practice, however, the centres have some way to go. They all follow a similar model, although the first hurdle for teachers who want to visit the NGFL's centre is finding it; after two attempts at an address and two error messages I eventually found it via a link on BECTA's homepage at www.becta.org.uk and the link to the VTC from the NGFL homepage is not obvious, unless you know to look under the link for schools.
Once you arrive, you have a choice between a meeting room and a library, or you can search through material on classroom resources, school management and professional development. The meeting room is where teachers post questions or comments and it allows anyone to read entries and respond. Discussions are hosted on topics such as curriculum subjects and special education needs and although only a handful of teachers have posted messages, there are some practical gems. Browsing the archive is like taking a bird's eye view of what other teachers are doing with computers in their classrooms.
The library holds contact details for leading government education departments and agencies like the Qualifications and Curriculum Agency and the Teachers' Training Agency. "It is useful for filling your address book," says Tibbetts.
While the bulk of the centre's materials are held under Classroom Resources and Professional Development, finding what you want is not easy and the type of entries varies from subject to subject. The best option is to spend half an hour browsing relevant subject links. Primary teachers, for example, will find classroom resources for using spreadsheets in maths, all written in plain English. These are under links for primary, then maths from the VTC's Classroom Resources page. By comparison, secondary school history teachers are offered a series of packs on incorporating ICT, priced from around pound;12.
An easy route to sorting out what you want should be the search facility of the VTCs home page. In practice, any search takes in everything on the NGFL and beyond, so that thousands of documents are returned in response to a search like "spreadsheet resources for KS2 maths". This rather defeats the centre's objective. To its credit, BECTA acknowledges the search function needs refinement so, for now, following links from sub-headings on the VTC is a better way of finding things. There are gaps in available information too, so the VTC does not yet offer teachers a one-stop shop.
"I mix and match to find classroom resources," says Tibbetts. "I might use BBC Education's website to find a resource or go to a subject association's website, or use the VTC depending on the subject."
Centres for teachers in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales feature similar materials to the VTC, often with a local focus - VTC Cymru, for example, has optional languages. And as they have less material there are fewer problems routing site visitors around. The downside is that teachers in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales may well find that their local centre does not have any resources relevant to their request, in which case they are then rapidly routed on to the NGFL's VTC.
Far less likely is for teachers using the VTC to be routed onto a regional centre, so a useful resource on professional development in, say, VTC Cymru, may miss a percentage of its potential audience.
Virtual Teachers' Centre www.vtc.ngfl.gov.uk
Scottish Virtual Teachers' Centre www.svtc.org.uk
Northern Ireland Node for the National Grid for Learning www.nine.gov.uk
VTCCymru (Wales) http:vtccymru.ngfl.wales.gov.uk.