Feature

Top of the e-class

The potential of e-learning to help traditional classroom teaching has long been appreciated but it has been slow to live up to its promise. The growth of Internet access has recently removed the technology barrier, while the Government's National Grid for Learning initiative has provided funding and logistical back-up. Within the National Grid programme 17 suppliers have been chosen to provide "kitemarked" services to help schools and local authorities to clear technical hurdles and establish their own e-learning programmes.

Blackboard and chalk have been replaced by computer and mouse in Lincolnshire's Computer Weekly award-winning e-learning initiative. Philip Hunter reports

Some forward-looking local authorities were not prepared to wait for the programme to deliver e-learning and went ahead with their own initiatives, usually in partnership with one of the 17 suppliers kitemarked. A pioneer with one of the most advanced e-learning programmes in the UK educational sector is Lincolnshire County Council, winner of the 2000 Computer Weekly e-business award in the e-recruitment and training category.

The council's e-learning system, called Netlinc (www.netlinc.org.uk), went live in January 1999, and in November won ComputerWeekly's e-business excellence award for e-recruitment and training. It now has 90,000 users, including adult students, teachers and governors, although secondary school pupils make up the majority. The full roll-out is not complete - it is in the third of four phases. In January 2001 there were 4,000 connected PCs across 301 locations. This will increase to 8,000 PCs and 380 locations by the end of phase four in July 2001. By then, there will be 110,000 users.

Netlinc project manager Geoff Chandler says the project's success is attributed to a close partnership with IT partner Ramesys, one of the e-learning providers. "The partnership was critical," Chandler says. Ramesys provided expertise in IT deployment with content management, while the council drew on teaching expertise to develop content. Both Chandler and the two other staff employed on content development were teachers before the project began in 1998.

Another key to its success is that it also draws content from pupils. "Anyone can create content, providing they have permission," said Chandler. "A teacher might create a worksheet on the Romans that could be useful for other schools. It takes just a click of a button to tag and upload it, making it available.

"There are more people creating content than we have in our team," Chandler added. "We see ourselves as content facilitators rather than developers, providing necessary tools." These tools were created with help from Ramesys, which also helped with loading and use of content.

Inevitably, teachers are not going to become content creators overnight, lacking time and familiarity with the method of working. "Schools will not have pages they have created initially," says Chandler. Much early content was created by Netlinc staff, culled externally, or acquired as packages like Encyclopaedia Britannica.

Such external sources are vital. But the aim is to use greater content from teachers, who can tailor content more closely to curricular needs. This will take time. As Chandler admits, the project has run ahead of the ability of contributing teachers. This was inevitable, given that funding of £6.5m came in one lump. That has advantages, enabling capacity and scalability to be built in from the outset. It did mean users could not be expected to exploit all facilities immediately. But when the system is upgraded in 2001, via a separate regional grant, to broadband, it will be feasible to develop and deliver sophisticated multimedia content just as many teachers are getting to grips with basic material.

Although the ability to cast the net wide to exploit and copy content created during everyday activities is invaluable, it is not enough on its own to make e-learning viable. Equally essential is properly organised content and easy accessibility, otherwise pupils could just as well search the Internet.

The content editing and organisation team is an important central resource. Its task is to guarantee accuracy, and to tag and archive content so that it can be found by searches. The team needs to draw on a variety of disciplines, so the work cannot be performed entirely in-house by the Netlinc team. Therefore some editing is distributed to people with specialist knowledge.

It is a highly usable and targeted environment, making it easier for pupils to perform searches and drill down without having to wade through irrelevant material. For example, a search on "Romans" would show relevant tags and titles from diverse sources including worksheets, online textbooks and encyclopedias, but presented as a single entity. Pupils can find general material and then obtain information about specific subjects, for example "Nero".

A teacher can create a drop-down list for any topic, project or series of lessons. This could be a mixture of instruction, interactive homework and places to visit within the Netlinc intranet for information. The list can then be loaded onto the intranet and used by other teachers within lessons. Netlinc can then provide assistance in lesson preparation for less able teachers.

Users fill in their date of birth when searching and this determines the nature of content delivered via the Netlinc intranet. This is not to censor content but to ensure that age-appropriate material is selected. In future, it may be possible to target it more accurately on ability rather than age, as it becomes able to monitor and take account of individual capabilities.

The system is more than a passive repository of knowledge with a glorified search engine and is far more sophisticated than the Internet. It has facilities for collaborative working and targeted learning, so teachers can use the system as a direct aid to classroom tuition. Material can be shared between schools, subject areas and discussion groups. It also supports interactive learning, allowing pupils to find their own levels, with potential for feedback or help from teachers online.

Security was a huge issue from several perspectives. It was vital that content was free from offensive material. This is not a factor at access, because it is filtered - the problem is at creation, given that anyone can participate. Netlinc has a two-pronged defence. The first is filtering software, I-Gear from Symantec, which shuts out banned Web sites and identifies suspect content on keyword combinations. On some words like expletives or names of drugs, a single reference is enough to block documents. Others, such as "sex", might depend on the overall subject or number of references. The second defence is provided at the human level by content editors.

Another security issue is the creation of e-mails by pupils using Internet accounts like Hotmail, which allow aliases and can disseminate anonymous messages. This has been countered by giving pupils secure Webmail accounts within their school's Web site and filtering outgoing messages. "We can be certain anything coming out has a name and can be traced," said Chandler.

Netlinc has stimulated learning for pupils, many of whom are avid PC and Internet users, and has reinforced and transferred best practice from good schools to benefit pupils in poorer ones.

Further ahead, there is potential for making scarce teaching skills available to more pupils using online interactive learning and video. Primary school classes could hook up with a specialist teacher and each class teacher could assist with interaction, and pass on expertise and material after the lesson has ended. So e-learning has the potential to help overcome skill shortages in the teaching profession and improve staff ratios.

To deliver its full potential the e-learning system must be available in homes and schools. Access to Netlinc is only just becoming available at home by linking to its Web site via the Internet rather than by direct dial up connection over BT ISDN lines from the school to the intranet. This is only available to those with a home PC, which Chandler says is between 50% and 60% of pupils this year.

Netlinc: technology keynotes

The Netlinc system runs on a Microsoft platform with Windows NT, Exchange, Office 2000 and SMS management software at desktop and server level.

Netscape and IE5 browsers are also supported by the system, a construction by Lincolnshire County Council and IT consultancy and integrator Ramesys.

Users in schools and other approved educational establishments dial the intranet directly via BT ISDN lines to establish secure private Internet protocol (IP) connections to the Netlinc servers, of which there are 32, supplied by Compaq.

Cisco routers handle IP networking. Three 2mbps circuits from NTL connect the Netlinc server farm to the Internet.

Netlinc's key to classroom success

The Netlinc system has come to the fore in e-learning for UK primary and secondary school children. It is now used by over 90,000 pupils in 301 schools and other locations within Lincolnshire, the UK's largest rural county, to compliment classroom-based learning across the academic spectrum. The core technology is being adopted by other local authorities and even for commercial applications outside the educational sector.

Key achievements are:

  • It is simple to use for both teachers and pupils, as anyone can create content

  • It allows pupils in all schools to benefit from its content, such as worksheets created by the best teachers

  • It promotes active learning through feedback and collaboration as a vehicle for access to knowledge

  • Rigorous controls maintain the accuracy and quality of content.

    These factors all make it a benchmark for e-learning in classrooms in the UK.


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    This was first published in March 2001

     

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