Marks out of 10 for the virtual classroom

Dorothy Walker reports on a pilot for the IT revolution which is set to transform education
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Indy Lifestyle Online
"We strongly believe that the single most important use of information technology is to improve education." Who said that? Bill Gates. And because Bill Gates said it, the whole world takes notice. Microsoft, ICL and the cable communications company Telecential are currently investing huge sums in Britain on bringing schools, parents and the community together in a "connected learning community".

"We are moving into an era where education will not be limited by the hours of a school day, by the walls of a classroom, or the confines of a student's home," says Microsoft's Mark East.

The company's vision of IT in education for the year 2000 sees teachers, parents, pupils and members of the community connected directly to the school by the Internet. A pilot scheme has been up and running for 19 months at Highdown Secondary School in Reading.

Much of the computing activity has been moved off school desks - where 85 machines are shared by 1,000 pupils - and into the homes of their parents and teachers. More than 50 homes have connections to the new community's information hub.

The information available on these Internet links has been built (and filtered) to help pupils with their curriculum but avoid the overload and distractions of unrestricted access.

"This approach is far more suitable than an open attempt by pupils to retrieve information," says Michaela Sturgess, head of Year Seven. "Pupils had fun but were often sidetracked or misguided."

Children are introduced to the basics at school, but they explore the wider aspects of their subjects at home. The first Highdown project gave children an opportunity to use Internet resources and then publish Web material for a real audience. The subject was animals, and pupils were soon logging on to exciting sites such as Sea World in California, whose real-time aquarium pictures are updated every 15 seconds.

A major breakthrough has been the use of parent power to create course material using sources on the Web and their own expertise. Jasmine Marsh, whose daughters attend Highdown, says: "My group of parents allied itself to the geography department. My husband is a hydrologist, so it made sense to use his skills. He is posting Web pages for the Sixth Form.

"I have been looking for Web material on Japan and Europe for the younger children. I had never touched a computer before this. My daughters helped me - it's a bonus when you can teach your mum something."

The project has also forged closer links between parents and the school. Instead of meeting only during a couple of formal evenings each term, parents and teachers now have instant communication via e-mail.

Spurred on by the success at Highdown, Reading Borough Council now plans to link all 42 primary and secondary schools in the Reading district. It will also extend access to people without home computers, who will be able to log on from libraries and museums.

And Highdown School already has a plan to get more of its own students involved. It has started to sell its resources to local businesses which need to train their staff in IT, and is using the fees to buy more computers

Highdown School http://www.highdown.berks.sch.uk

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