UK school curriculum goes online

Children will be watching more TV under government proposals for a digital curriculum. Educationalists says broadband will be crucial
Written by Jane Wakefield, Contributor

The curriculum is due to go online today as the government announces a new set of digital initiatives for schools.

The foundation for a radical overhaul of the traditional curriculum will start with a scheme to give GCSE students a new tool for learning -- via TV. From September 2002, GCSE pupils will learn six core subjects, including maths, science and history, with the help of digital interactive TV. The interactive TV service will give pupils access to video clips and interactive quizzes as well as linking up schools across the country.

The Department for Education and Employment (DfEE) is investing £40m in the project and the content for the courses will be produced equally by the BBC and Granada Media. The government hopes to extend the digital TV initiative across the whole primary and secondary age range.

Ten schools have been trialling the TV learning courses since spring of last year, and the courses have been hailed a success by teachers and pupils alike. Howard Kemp, head of maths at Marden comprehensive school in Tyneside, believes pupils find it an exciting way of learning. "They are seeing it visually. It is a bit different and in a medium they understand," he said.

Education secretary David Blunkett is determined to develop the idea of an online curriculum by building a national online library with video files, newspaper cuttings, historical documents and other interactive material for every subject in the National Curriculum. The government is also investing £22.5m in an educational search engine dubbed Cybrarian. The system will allow uses to search the Net for learning materials using voice recognition.

The DfEE is keen to point out that its online curriculum plans will not affect teacher relationships with pupils. "The digital resources will not replace but will enhance traditional and tried teaching methods," said Blunkett in a statement. "They will encourage pupils to stretch themselves with new ways of learning, giving pupils access to the latest information."

Former head of the National Association of Head Teachers Chris Thatcher welcomes the government's cash fund for online resources but points out it will need to be accompanied by an equal commitment to getting broadband into every school. "To provide these services schools will need to have a broadband connection and this is going to be a significant cost," he said.

Where the average primary school now pays around £1,500 per year on its Internet connection, broadband is likely to cost ten times this, according to Thatcher. "It is essential that it does happen but government needs to put in place the mechanism for recovering costs," he said.

Thatcher also believes that it is important that teachers get the training they need to use new technology to their best advantage. "The key to it is going to be teachers. They have to have the facilities and resources to use it in the curriculum properly and there is a heck of a lot that still needs to be done on that."

Via the National Grid for Learning up to 80 percent of schools in the UK have been connected to the Internet, although this often does not mean an Internet-enabled PC in every classroom.

The government is keen to extend the learning environment beyond school and into pupils' homes but is aware that this raises digital divide issues. "Every child will have access at school but the issue of access at home is a bigger question," said a DfEE spokesman.

Digital TV will play an important part in getting the online curriculum to the homes of children from deprived areas. According to the government one in five households now have digital television and there are plans to switch off the analogue signal as early as 2006.

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