Internet learning has taken off with the launch of a programme to help teachers keep abreast of professional development worldwide. Steven Hastings reports
If the phrase "continuous professional development" makes you turn round, tune out and drop off, it may be time to swap the Inset seminar for an interactive quiz on how the brain works, a foot-tapping clip from the musical Oliver!, or bite-sized chunks of expert advice.
TeachandLearn.net, a professional development programme launched in January this year by the Open University and BBC Worldwide, hopes to make full use of the potential of internet learning, by offering audio and video clips, high-quality images, links to specialist websites and online chat.
"The web offers a brilliant environment for CPD," says Bob Moon, Open University professor of education, who is leading the project, "especially for updating subject knowledge. There's little on offer to teachers, other than standard undergraduate textbooks. We wanted to show what could be done. So 50 per cent of the resources are aimed at giving access to quality subject-specific material."
From interviews with art critics to videos of primary children using a giant abacus, subject resources are structured in a series of units mixing text with activities. There are discussion forums, guest lectures and units dealing with whole-school issues. The advisory panel includes chief adviser for London schools Tim Brighouse, Friday columnist and emeritus professor of education at Exeter University Ted Wragg, and former education secretary Estelle Morris; the weight of their experience is brought to bear on modules such as Managing and Leading the Curriculum, Behaviour Management, and Thinking Together.
Designed as a subscription service, it costs from pound;495 to pound;1,295 a year depending on the size and type of school. There are special rates for clusters of schools or LEAs, and, with modules for governors, teaching assistants and librarians, as well as teachers, it is aimed at the whole school community. The emphasis is on presenting a wide range of information in a user-friendly way. "We did a lot of research into what kind of online support was available for teachers worldwide," says Professor Moon. "Quality was generally poor. People tired of sites that were never updated, hard to navigate or badly designed."
Yet with OU research showing that around half of all teachers use the web for some kind of CPD, the time seemed right for creating an alternative.
With almost 160,000 students and tutors online, and producing 700,000 CD-Roms and 20,000 DVDs a year, the Open University has long experience of large-scale e-learning. Teaming up with BBC Worldwide (the commercial arm of the BBC) meant this could be boosted with access to all the corporation's information networks. For many subscribers, the combination made it worth a try.
"They're names we've learned to trust," says Ian Nicholson, leader of the innovation and development team at Lancashire LEA, which has subscribed to the programme. "There are so many initiatives coming through that it can be difficult to make sense of everything. This is the place to go to find out what you need to know. It's up-to-date, manageable and relevant."
Lancashire started by subscribing for all its 120 advisory staff, who offered guidance to schools on the best way of using the programme. "Many NQTs get useful support if they're teaching something for the first time," says Mr Nicholson. "At the other end, middle managers use it to find out about new schemes or as part of a larger training package for staff."
Lancashire has found it a lifeline for small schools. "If you have a school with just three staff, and CPD requires someone to be out for the day, you lose a third of your staff and you have children not being taught. This is much more flexible."
It is this flexibility teachers seem to enjoy. They can set their own pace and tailor the programme rather than being committed to a one-size-fits-all package. "It gives people a degree of autonomy," says Professor Moon.
Completed modules can be accredited by the OU and can count for 15 or 30 points towards a masters degree (which requires 180 points) at any UK university. "We've found teachers are keen to have credit for what they're doing. This offers the chance of a postgraduate benchmark qualification."
But not all schools are convinced - yet. Some say the site has been slow to get going, with few people logging on to discussion forums and too few resources to make subscription worthwhile. At Princeville primary school in Bradford, the programme is part of a larger initiative to use ICT for flexible learning. Headteacher Peter Steele is enthusiastic about the recently added resources for teaching assistants, but retains reservations about the programme as a whole. "It can come over as a bit dry. It needs to be careful not to be too textbooky," he says. "At the moment it's like an electronic academic course instead of using the full potential of ICT."
But, he says, there are signs of change. "The recent group work modules have started to make things more accessible. If it continues to develop, it will turn out to be good value Inset. The potential is huge."
It's this potential that is getting everyone excited. The Specialist Schools Trust has contracted TeachandLearn.net to host 60 learning units in specialist areas to run alongside in-person training offered by regional centres, while the programme is being used as a model for CPD in other professions. Open University staff are working on a similar project for the National Health Service. "We're not suggesting this should replace face-to-face activity," says Professor Moon. "But it can support all kinds of opportunities. It's a powerful way of integrating traditional methods of CPD with the best of new technology."