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Wider cast of the net

New technology is revolutionising the physical environments in which children learn. Rural communities in particular are reaping the benefits

The rectangle of churned red earth between two low-rise, Sixties school buildings gives little indication of what is to come. But the futuristic classroom under construction here at Chulmleigh community college in mid-Devon will feature video-conferencing facilities, a plasma screen and an internet cafe. It will use geothermal heating from underground sources and carbon dioxide monitors to ensure there's enough oxygen in class. It's a state-of-the-art bid to beat social exclusion in a deeply rural area, and all for around pound;500,000.

Chulmleigh has one of the UK's largest catchment areas - covering 200 square miles of hilly countryside. Although the town numbers just 1,100 people, it is the biggest centre of population for 25 miles. Many of the 535 pupils live in isolated farmsteads or small hamlets and travel up to an hour to school; sheep and dairy farming - although in decline - remain the main forms of livelihood. "The whole catchment looks like this," says headteacher Barrie Cooper, gesturing out of the window at velvet-green, rounded hills. Chulmleigh offers children not just academic but social opportunities. "Some barely see others over the summer holiday," he says.

Distance learning has much to offer in this context and is already a going concern at Chulmleigh. Seventy-five per cent of students have internet access at home; 89 per cent have computers. Resources, group projects and homework are all available on the school's "extranet". There is a secure Chulmleigh chatroom, and online learning is embedded in the school culture. "They can't say to each other, 'I'll come round tonight to work on this'," says Barrie Cooper. "But they meet online, work online and download work to home."

For those without home internet access, the resources room is open at lunchtimes and after school. Working with computers and making digital presentations has given children's learning a real lift, says Barrie Cooper. "It's instant. It gives them control, so they can make choices about their learning."

The school was selected for a government-funded high-tech classroom partly because of what already happens here. Adults and students of 16-plus can choose from 1,000 courses offered in the college's resource centre. Around 100 people are registered at any one time, says Chulmleigh's head of ICT, Dawn Stabb. Courses include business, computer programming, languages, history and desktop publishing. Income from them is ploughed back into ICT; there is one computer for every four children.

The classroom of the future will enhance and extend what is already on offer. Movable partitions mean the ICT suite can be used for small or large groups. Windows can be darkened at the flick of a switch to make best use of the cinema-quality sound and video facilities. Staff are looking into video-conferencing with a school in France. Negotiations are also under way to extend vocational options by remote working with North Devon college.

The classroom of the future is designed for community as well as school use. The school will run community classes in ICT, French for business and other areas. Local entrepreneurs will be able to use the internet cafe for training sessions, or hold video-conferences. Staff at the school also plan to involve local adults more in children's learning; in the internet cafe, adult and child students of French for business will be able to practise their language skills on each other.


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