Net gains of learning on the web

Will a joint initiative between the Open University and the BBC lead to better teaching? Dorothy Lepkowska finds out

After 30 years of collaboration in education, the Open University and the BBC are about to launch probably their most ambitious project yet., which goes online this week, is the first comprehensive and interactive website aimed at providing independent professional development to heads, teachers, classroom assistants and governors.

Nearly eight years in the planning, the project is the culmination of a comprehensive analysis of what teachers want and need to keep up with the demands of their work. At the click of a button, they will be able to access more than 32 different courses which include innovations in their subject fields, as well as ideas on how to take those into the classroom. It will also provide information on the latest classroom practices, academic research and new trends in schools.

Professor Bob Moon, the director of the OU's centre for research and development in teacher education, and the founding director of the website, says: "The centre has been considering online professional support for teachers since 1997. We believe it will work because teachers are now ready for this type of resource."

Research shows that teachers are increasingly willing to use the internet for professional development. The site is an opportunity for primary and secondary teachers to develop subject knowledge, because there are very few courses to support pedagogic practice, he says.

There will be a range of units for primary school teachers for issues such as literacy development, and science and maths in the primary curriculum, according to Professor Moon. Every secondary subject area has resources about teaching and learning in subject pedagogic practice and subject knowledge.

"For example, teachers who trained 20 or 30 years ago may not have learnt about global warming in their initial training," he says. "The site will bring them up to date with the latest information and show them how to incorporate this into lessons." The website will also cover whole school issues such as dealing with the difficulties of the transition between primary and secondary schools, and special educational needs. It will continually evolve in line the needs of teachers, though not all of the resources will be immediately available. "We have not put everything up so far because we want people to be continually surprised by the quality of what they are seeing," he says. "We believe the site will prove hugely helpful."

Professor Tim Brighouse, the commissioner for schools in London, has chaired a steering group which has overseen the development of the site and its content. He will also write a regular advice column on the site. "The OU and the BBC have combined well before and the OU is already well-known for its high-quality work on professional development," says Professor Brighouse. "In fact, many ITT institutions have been using their materials for years."

He is keen to stress the importance of the site and that it will particularly appeal to teachers because it is independent of the Government. "While teachers can feel overwhelmed with their workload it is hugely important for them to refresh their subject knowledge and intellectual curiosity," says Professor Brighouse. "People tend to go into teaching because they love their subject, but it can be difficult to keep abreast of developments and innovations. This is an independent voice that is run by people who are experts in their field."

The courses offered will have accreditation towards Masters qualifications offered by the OU, and teachers will be able to use the site at school and at home. According to Andy Ware, BBC Worldwide's director of children's learning, the BBC and OU have had a successful history of producing, promoting and distributing distance-learning courses. "This service is a personalised answer to the Government-led continual professional development strategy," he adds. will be launched at the Bett Show 2004. Materials for classroom assistants and governors are being developed for inclusion at a later date. Annual subscriptions cost £1,295 for secondary schools, £795 for primaries and £495 for primary schools with fewer than 100 pupils. Block subscriptions are also available and the OU is already talking to more than 60 LEAs with a view to setting up a block booking for all their schools.