Your money or your time
Spark Island and Einsteinonline are two recent additions, joining established names such as AngliaCampus and School - both nominated for BETT awards this year. Subscription services that have gained prominence in the past 18 months are not just run-of-the-mill websites with content of interest to schools, they are interactive learning environments or, in the words of Spark Island, "learning adventures online".
Not long ago, the World Wide Web was seen as a free resource - type in a few words and in seconds you'd have information on any topic. That utopia has yet to arrive, and materials that are relevant and trustworthy are not always easy to find.
Tom Davy, chief executive of Spark Learning, believes it is the time-consuming nature of the net that has led schools to look for alternatives. He says: "I started Spark Island because there was a gap in the market for quality online materials. It is difficult for schools to get hold of really interesting and appropriate material that links into the National Curriculum."
There may have been a gap in the market then, but an online search now soon reveals an increase in provision that has been fuelled by the rapid rise in availability of ICT in primary schools. Figures from the DfEE and BESA (British Educational Suppliers Association) show that 86 to 88 per cent of primary schools are now connected to the Internet, so it is no surprise that companies are extending their services.
But how do you choose a service? Most offer material written by teachers, and all promise it is curriculum-linked. There are even interactive SAT-like tests and printable resources. Price is a major factor and, with so many free sites, many heads will question the need to pay. Prices are often not as high as you may think. Spark Island costs pound;200 a year, while Einsteinonline starts at pound;150 for homework clubs and pound;250 a year for full-day use. AngliaCampus charges pound;80 plus VAT for primaries with fewer than 60 pupils and pound;120 for larger schools. Primary Zone, frm Granada Learning, costs pound;60 a year and comes with a free trial offer.
Headline figures say very little about quality or quantity, or how often the material is updated. A trial run is the only way to establish a site's credentials, suggests Debs Ayerst, education officer at BECTA (British Educational Communications and Technology Agency). "Just because you are paying does not necessarily make any difference I in terms of educational purpose it can be a bit thin on the ground. Try and have a look in advance - some services will allow you to look at a site for a few days or a week."
Those still worried about costs should consider that you wouldn't expect books or other resources to be free. So why should the Internet be different?If a service is worth having, you should be prepared to pay.
The amount of time a school expects to spend using the material will also be a deciding factor. If a few classes are dipping in and out, could the money be better spent elsewhere? There is also the matter of resources and increased online time. A fast connection and a flat-rate usage option will keep costs down.
Free services include BBC Online, Sainsbury and Educate the Children; most free sites don't claim to offer a comprehensive service, but there is no reason why teachers can't just "cherry-pick".
Subscription sites have an advantage, with ready made material that is firmly clamped to the curriculum. There is also likely to be less advertising, which should reduce access time on slow computers.
Ultimately, you have to decide how to incorporate a new service into the daily life of the classroom. While it may provide ready made materials and tutorials, you will still have to spend time working it into lessons and negotiating access for all pupils. If you're looking for a regular source of new and relevant material, you're on to a winner, but if you're looking for a quick-fix time saver, you could just be back to square one.
For more details, visit: .atschool.co.uk
Spark Island: www.sparkisland.com
BBC Online: www.bbc.co.ukeducation
Educate the Children: www.educate.org.uk
Granada Learning: www.primary-zone.com