Education+: Schools on the Net. A success story, virtually

Schools inolved in pilot Internet projects report glowing results; the only problem is paying for it all. Diana Appleyard logs on to the future of teaching
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The Independent Online
Classrooms without walls, where students can log on wherever they are, virtual reality school trips and access via the Internet to the entire world at the click of a mouse - the technology and software for the space- age school is now available. The only problem is that, with budgets still stretched to breaking point, few state schools even now can invest in little more than a handful of often outdated PCs.

It is a situation the previous government recognised - and set up 23 superhighway projects around the country, persuading private enterprise to pay for the computers and software for the schools.

By far the most ambitious is the Beon project (Bristol Education On Line Network). Major companies ICL and BT have put pounds 4m into providing 530 computers for 11 schools in Withywood - one of the poorest areas of the city.

The project has proved such a success that BT and ICL have now signed a pounds 4.7m contract to provide the same state-of-the-art computer systems for 10 secondary and two adult education centres on Merseyside.

The Bristol project has been running for 18 months but, from April, schools will have to find the money to keep the project going themselves. All of the schools have signed on - because they say the benefits they've seen in their children have been such they "couldn't afford in terms of education" to give it up.

Alan Teece, general manager of ICL's education department, says: "We came to the conclusion that the education system in this country needed re-engineering using information technology, because that's the tool of the future. Our aim is to create a blueprint of how schools will be in the future."

The benefits, the schools say, have been tremendous. "We've seen seven- year-olds doing the work of 11-year-olds," says Brian Hall, the head at Hareclive Primary School. "Children are completely at home with the computer. I think it's because it's a neutral object - it isn't going to tell them off or show them up if they get something wrong, which is very important to our kids. They do things for a computer in a much more engaged way than they would for a teacher."

He sees the technology being at the heart of everything that happens in the school - not as a subject in itself, but as a tool to open up education to his pupils, many of whom looked set to "turn off" learning.

The project has also opened up new methods of teaching. At Withywood, the only secondary school taking part, children are now learning to draw and paint via a video-conferencing link with Nick Eastwood, a lecturer in art at Exeter University.

As a group of pupils gather around the screen, Nick takes them through various stages in creating a painting - and can also show them slides as demonstrations of what he means. "We have access to thousands of slides here from galleries and museums and the technology means I can illustrate quite a complicated idea quite simply," he says.

Stuart Ames, 14, one of the pupils involved, says: "It's made a huge difference. Nick is really enthusiastic and he can show us all sorts of things we can't see in school. It's great to think we're being taught by someone as talented as Nick - he shows us lots of his own paintings as well. But he's also really interested in what we're doing, and he makes us think about what's influenced us to paint or sculpt the way we have."

And the technology doesn't end at video-conferencing. Chris Hutchison, a lecturer at Kingston University, is currently writing a book about the use of virtual reality in education.

"The technology is now available for pupils to create virtual reality 3-D models of themselves on screen. They choose their hair colour, clothes, eye colour. You can then create a virtual classroom with all your pupils," he explains.

"The teacher can say, OK, let's go and visit a farm today, or a museum. At the click of a mouse the class can then walk together into the museum or art gallery ... It gives a whole new meaning to the phrase `school trip' and it greatly enhances the learning experience.

"There are always pupils whose parents can't afford for them to go on school trips to say, France. Now you can have a virtual trip to Paris, perhaps working collaboratively with a French school. Visit the virtual Paris with the French kids, walk down the virtual Champs-Elysees, enjoy a virtual croissant. Then you could invite them back on the computer for a virtual trip to London."

Hayley Collins, a pupil at Whitehouse Primary in Bristol, has her reservations, however. "It would depend where you're going," she says. "Half the fun of a school trip is getting out of school - but if it's somewhere a long way away or which would be really expensive to get to I think it would be a good idea to go using the computer. I don't think it would be so exciting though."

Chris Hutchison says everyone - local education authorities, the Government and schools - must all think long and hard about how the information revolution is going to be funded so that everyone benefits. He believes we've reached the stage in information technology now where there's no turning back - and that if schools don't embrace all the possibilities of IT some pupils will be seriously deprived.

"It's worrying that we might face a situation of `information rich and information poor', [in which] only children attending schools in the leafy suburbs ... will benefit," he says.

BT and ICL say it will be some time before they recoup their pounds 4m investment in the Beon project. Alan Teece says: "Of course it is a commercial investment for us, and I know the schools will have to make painful decisions to start with to afford the technology. But with Beon I think we've proved we can't afford not to do it. The Government, local authorities, and the European Community need to structure the funding so that all schools can afford it.

"With a social security budget of pounds 90bn and an education budget of just pounds 18bn, surely we should, as a nation, spend more money on these children now," he says.

Brian Hall at Hareclive Primary will have to find around an extra pounds 50,000 to keep the Beon computers at his school. "I don't know how I'm going to afford it," he says. "But at the moment we'll go with it as long as we can afford to on our own. We owe it to the kids on estates like these to do it"n

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