Education: Stuck on your chemistry homework? Someone out there wants to help you

Homework help lines are exploding all over the Internet. School children are logging on to sites where, in theory, all their questions can be answered. But are they any good or just time wasting? By Hilary Wilce

They're hip, they're happening, they're on a computer screen near your children - and if your children haven't yet discovered them, they soon will. Homework helplines are burgeoning, as the Internet pushes its way into everyday life and thousands of new pupils each day log on to the fact that study support is only a mouse-click away.

Even those running these services can't quite believe how fast they are taking off. BBC Education launched its GCSE Bitesize Revision website - part of its whole integrated revision package - in February last year. "Between April and June that year, we had 876,000 page views," says producer Helen Bader. "Between the same months this year we had 10,839,000. We grew by 10 million in one year! It's been a massive, massive success." So successful, in fact, that the BBC is to start two new websites, for pupils at Key Stages 2 and 3, in the new year, while another major new education site, the independent Schoolsnet, is poised to launch in November.

Meanwhile, at the other end of the scale, the tiny Homework Elephant, set up by 13-year-old James Reeve, with the help of his father, Greg, at their home in Wiltshire seven months ago, has gone from having 200 visitors in its first month to 400 visitors a day, and rising.

"I wanted to do it because I was using the Web a lot for homework but got bored with going through so much American stuff," says James, a year- nine pupil at Sheldon School, in Chippenham, Wiltshire.

His father, a project manager with Securicor, offered help because he thought it would be a good learning exercise for his son to plan and execute the idea. Commercial success was the last thing on their minds, although now that the site is attracting links with search engines and online bookshops, they may have to think again.

Like other study sites, Homework Elephant leads on in several directions. It points visitors on to lists of vetted, subject-specific resource sites, tells them where they can go to "Ask an Expert", and runs Agony Elephant, for visitors with problems. "We recently helped someone find information on the history of dancing shoes," says James. "But what we won't ever do is direct people to sites that do their homework for them," says Greg.

"I always tell members that I am not there to actually do the work for them, but will help them get started or offer tips and hints," says Alison Phillips, Maths Host for AOL UK, a subscription Internet service provider, primarily geared to families, whose Kids and Learning channels offer research resources, tutoring rooms and an Ask-a-Teacher service.

By day, she is head of IT at Stainburn School, Workington, in Cumbria, but by night she fields e-mail questions from six-year-olds to mature students, on anything from mechanics to university courses, and designs maths tasks for the Learning Channel, using Mr Bean and Red Dwarf to make them fun.

Her virtual colleague, Vanessa Lopez, a languages teacher at The John of Gaunt School, in Trowbridge, Wiltshire, and another AOL UK host, answers e-mails from pupils "maybe stuck on the French future tense, or in a muddle about verb endings," and hosts weekly scheduled French and Spanish chats for people who want to practise their languages, and thinks online communication brings its own benefits. "If a kid says he didn't understand what you've just said, when you've been sweating away for the last hour trying to explain it, you aren't going to be particularly patient with that pupil. There are also kids who don't want to be seen to be wanting to learn in front of their friends. Communicating with someone anonymously takes away these stresses."

At present, homework helplines are most popular among teens and the GCSE set - the BBC's Bitesize site posts an archive of almost 2,500 questions that its online teachers answered last year - but the age at which pupils are starting to search for cyber help is going down. "I was stuck on a history question last week," says Sam Houston, 11, of Stainburn School, "and my Dad got on the computer for me and I sent my question and I got an answer back in about a day. Now maybe I will do it again."

More and more students are getting the message. "When I was in year seven," says James Reeve, "I didn't know anyone apart from myself who was using the Web for homework. Now there's at least six or seven in my tutor group alone, and some teachers use it as well."

Teachers are mostly relaxed about their pupils getting online support, but know that the search and evaluation skills taught in school are vital if children are to make sensible use of the options on offer, and schools must work to make sure that the growing use of online help does not widen the gap between the haves and have-nots.

"Something like just over 50 per cent of our students have a computer at home," says David Ashley, the deputy head of Shevington High School, in Wigan, "but they are all taught technology skills, they can all use the school computers at lunchtime and after half-term this school will be open in the evening."

The school, a technology college, has just started using its own website for homework, posting and marking assignments online, and is working with other schools in the area to develop tailored materials. For David Ashley, it is this mixture of local and global resources that the future of online learning is likely to be about. "It gives a much greater ability to develop programmes to suit individual children's needs. You can differentiate much more carefully, and vary work more subtly and easily than you are ever able do in the classroom."

For parents, the most important issues of homework help are security, cost and effectiveness. Greg Reeve also warns that parents need a content filter on their computer, and he has posted details of a free one on Homework Elephant.

Cost also needs to be monitored carefully. Research in both the UK and the USA indicates that Internet use improves exam performance, but obviously not if mouse-clicking is seen as a substitute for careful thought and hard work.

In this writer's household, experiences of seeking out online help were varied (see below). It seemed a good way of getting answers to plain questions, excellent for specific exam revision, but time-wasting and only marginally helpful for the kind of general support still probably best offered by flesh-and-blood teachers.

HELPFUL EDUCATION SITES

AOL UK'S Learning and Kids channels:

available to AOL UK subscribers; easy-to-use, carefully monitored, kid- friendly education channels.

BBC Education's GCSE Bitesize revision: www.bbc.co.uk/education/ revision; excellent, targeted help for this age group.

BBC Education: www.bbc.co.uk/education/ home; broad span of BBC educational resources.

Homework Elephant: www.homeworkelephant.free-online.co.uk; small, clear, highly accessible UK site.

School Zone: www.schoolzone.co.uk; links to 30,000 educational addresses for parents, teachers and students.

Top Marks: www.topmarks.co.uk; education site launched by a teacher for teachers, parents and pupils.

Learn Free: www.learnfree.co.uk; education site supported by The Times Educational Supplement.

Freeserve Education: www.freeserve.net/ education; education site of UK's first free Internet service. Suitable for pre-school to 16.

Schoolsnet: www.schoolsnet.com; a "virtual school" that's opening in November.

Homework Central: www.homeworkcentral.com; a US-based channel; vast

resources.

Schoolwork Ugh!: www.schoolwork.org; another huge US education channel.

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