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Broadband in schools - never mind about the content

It's about more than high-speed connections...
Written by Sally Watson, Contributor

It's about more than high-speed connections...

The benefits of technology in schools have long been evangelised. But can the results live up to the hype? As the government launches a £50m project to put the National Curriculum online, Sally Watson finds out if educational IT passes the test. Getting broadband rolled out nationwide is proving something of a bruising experience for the Labour government. With its staunch refusal to provide any direct funding to the market, the government is relying heavily on public sector contracts - worth an estimated £1.7bn a year - to attract broadband investment into local areas. Hence the announcement last month of a £50m project to put the National Curriculum online. After all, the reasoning went, if you're going to have broadband, you better have some content to put on it, hadn't you? So by September schools have been promised a website packed with the latest curriculum resources, learning materials and teaching aids. The BBC is rumoured to be spending as much as £150m of taxpayers' money on developing curriculum content over the next five years. Other commercial educational providers will get their share of the market through a scheme of 'e-learning credits' which schools will be able to spend on the software of their choice. During its first term in office the Labour government poured funds a-plenty into wiring-up the UK's network of comprehensive schools. But the influx of hardware appeared to miss its mark. A report in May 2001 from schools inspectorate Ofsted lamented the lack of training and support provided for teachers. "Only about half of teachers have yet enrolled for training and only a minority have completed it. Levels of [Local Education Authority] support for ICT vary considerably and are often too low to meet the full range of schools' needs. Their support and guidance for schools' ICT development planning... is unsatisfactory overall," the report claimed. One man who knows all about the difficulties of keeping kids' attention is Lewis Bronze. For nearly 18 years Bronze worked for the BBC as an editor of its flagship children's programmes Newsround and Blue Peter. Realising that schools were investing heavily in hardware but were lacking the essential content they needed, Bronze left the BBC to found his own educational software firm, Espresso. Bronze wanted a service that could be updated regularly, changed to suit curriculum needs and reflect the latest news, but faced with a range of erratic dial-up and ISDN connections, he opted for the less-fashionable satellite broadcast. "With satellite, every school in the country is potentially covered. There's no limit on size or location," said Bronze. "It's very cheap and very scalable. And it costs me the same to send data to 500 schools as it does to just one." Espresso's resources software is broadcast to schools in one weekly data burst. All they need is a satellite dish and server. The browser-based HTML content provides children with information, TV clips, games and worksheets, while teachers get access to resources packages and curriculum information. Raglan Primary School in Enfield, North London has been using Espresso since September last year, having sacrificed a music room to build a computer lab. Graham Alderton, Raglan's deputy head, claims the software is the best money the school has spent "in a long time". "In the past we've spent over £1,000 on a computer that was simply a glorified hat stand in the corner of the classroom, but the kids find [Espresso] easy and fun to use, and it forces teachers to learn skills as well," he said. The school has received plenty of funding for hardware over the last three years. The National Grid for Learning provided £25,000 and a successful bid to the Local Education Authority resulted in a £20,000 capital grant - money that the school then had to match. The £9,000 spent on three years' worth of Espresso seems a bargain in comparison but the money had to come from the school's curriculum funds, with Alderton convincing each teacher that it was worth investing their much-needed money this way. Raglan's pupils certainly don't lack enthusiasm for their computer lessons. Challenged to find out information about the latest rocket launch or animal life in different habitats, a class of eight- and nine-year-olds race off round the Espresso site at speed. The problem is that with just one computer room in a school of 600, the children get an average of one hour a week on the machines. Raglan has an ambitious five-year plan to get every classroom connected to its network, shared electronic whiteboards and even wireless laptops for the teachers. Which means content will be in demand. Alderton describes current educational software offerings as a 'bit mix and match'. He'd like to see more like Espresso and is impatient to see what the BBC will come up with. "Offerings from people like RM and Granada Learning are all very subject oriented," he said. "Espresso is cross curricular which is a major advantage." But Espresso's Bronze is worried. With around 450 primary schools and 40 secondary schools using its software the company is doing OK, but heavyweight competition from the might of his old employer is something Bronze could do without. "The BBC creates good educational content - but I don't think any market is served by monopolies. But fundamentally they don't have to sell their content and better content comes from competition," he said. How the development of the BBC's Digital Curriculum will pan out is unclear. The broadcaster is mooting 50 per cent input from independent content companies but there may not be much money to go round. Expresso intends to fight for its future alone. What is clear is that however much money is poured into hardware and broadband connections, they cannot create a thriving classroom by themselves. "We have to move away from the Microsoft idea that providing computers will save schools," added Bronze. "It's the content that really matters."
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