Do I need to draw you a picture?

Homework is no problem when you can consult teachers live online and they can even draw you a diagram There are a huge number of...

Homework is no problem when you can consult teachers live online and they can even draw you a diagram There are a huge number of online learning sites, but the Channel 4-backed is breaking new ground with its innovative online drawing board, writes Roisin Woolnough

Launched in January this year, Homeworkhigh is the result of a collaboration between Channel 4 and London-based digital media specialists, Cimex Media. Channel 4 first started discussions with Cimex two years ago about how to produce a site where children aged nine to 16 could ask questions about their homework online and receive live answers from a panel of teachers.

But it was not until June 1999 that Cimex began building the site. In the run-up to the launch there were six people working on the project, although this has since been scaled down to three. According to Ian Haynes, strategic partner at Cimex, everything happened on time and to budget, despite "a few nervous breakdowns en route".

Andy Whitaker, technical partner at Cimex, did most of the programming. The site runs on an IBM Netfinity running Linux and Apache. It was written using Perl and mod-Perl, with a bit of Javascript and HTML. "Mod-Perl is a compiled version of Perl," explains Whitaker. "It's a lot faster though, and is a very flexible language as it doesn't tie up into a particular system." Whitaker also used cookies to log users' details so that they do not have to keep inputting the same information each time they visit the site.

Apart from the live panel of teachers, a feature of Homeworkhigh that has attracted a lot of attention is the use of an online drawing board. This enables the teachers to give pictorial answers to questions, by drawing a graph or diagram, for example.

"The pen has a radio transmitter in it that is activated when the user presses the pen down," explains Whitaker. "The paper [a conventional A4 pad] sits in a plastic tray which has a receiver, serial port into the PC and various buttons allowing the user to create a new page and upload an existing one. Using a transmitter and receiver, the system records all of the user's pen strokes. The idea is that you can scribble quickly. It hasn't been used in this way in the UK yet - it came from the States just before we started development on the site."

Homework has never been so much fun.

Curriculum vitae

  • Name: Andy Whitaker

  • Job title: technical partner

  • Age: 34

  • Qualifications: degree in electronics

  • IT skills: database-driven Web sites, systems analysis, programming

  • Hobbies: jigsaw puzzles - excellent for de-stressing

  • Favourite film: The Usual Suspects

  • Favourite pub: Three Kings in West Kensington, London

  • Whitaker on Whitaker: hairy, perfectionist, creative

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