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'A gigantic online swapshop'

'A gigantic online swapshop'

Will a virtual bank for teachers to share ideas revolutionise lesson planning or stifle creativity?

In the next academic year, all schools will have access to a new National Digital Resource Bank. It's more exciting than it sounds.

The NDRB is essentially a gigantic online swapshop. If it works, teachers will hit "Search" and gain access to resources designed and tested by their 400,000 colleagues across the country. Hours spent concocting lesson plans late into the night will be a thing of the past. Students will also be able to download educational videos, exercises and audio clips. And, unlike what Google throws up, everything will be quality assured and copyright safe.

"We hope this will become the single most important resource for teachers," says Fiona Iglesias, NDRB's project manager. "The idea is to pull together all the resources created by teachers, schools and public funding into one central location. It's in every school's interest to put their resources into the pot, because they each get back so many times what they put in."

At present, most teachers wince at the very mention of virtual learning platforms. Most VLPs are a horrific combination of required - the government has declared that all schools must have one - and useless. Unconnected and underdeveloped, many VLPs are devoid of content: empty cathedrals, monuments to technological failure.

Worthwhile content

Iglesias believes that the new resource bank will help turn this situation around by filling the holes with genuinely worthwhile content. "There is already an estimated £30m-worth of digital resources out there that are not being shared, and that base is going to continue to grow," she says. "We are hoping to take contributions from industry, charities and national archives."

Some VLPs have been a success. Take Knowsley Hey school on Merseyside. When I asked some of the students whether their My Zone VLP was a good thing, they nodded their heads in a bemused fashion, looking at me as though I'd just asked them whether language was a good thing, or air.

"You can download educational games, notes from class, exercises - it's really good," says 14-year-old Hannah Duka. "Sometimes my mum watches me over my shoulder and is fascinated by how I use it. She just stands there and looks, but it's really easy. I think it's going to get even better if they make it bigger." Their teacher and head of media, Phil Green, agrees. "The students we teach come from a media age; they are visually bombarded from every angle. As teachers we have to compete against their entertainment. A worksheet is not enough to engage them any more."

Fears have been expressed that the bank will encourage teachers to skimp on planning, encouraging them to copy and paste material at the last minute like their more irresponsible students. But for many overworked teachers, it will be a welcome tool to enrich the work they already do.

"How many times do teachers think 'I'd like a bit more information on that', only to bring up 250,000 links on Google?" says Green. "Last night I spent two and a half hours designing a lesson plan, but I hope that in future it will all be there for me."

According to Iglesias, teachers will barely need any training to use the new resource. A simple Google-like interface will allow teachers to search for whatever they want. They can refine their search by key stage and subject, as well as selecting whether they want a full lesson plan, or a video, activity or resource to slot into an existing agenda. A star rating like that used by eBay will allow teachers to rank resources they have tried and approved, encouraging - as Iglesias puts it - "the cream to rise to the top". Because the project is entirely open source, downloaded resources can be adapted and changed without fear of breaching copyright laws. It also means it is incredibly cheap to run.

Developed with EU funding and pioneered in Spain, the bank's source code is free for other countries to use and copy. Apart from the time and resources needed to collect and monitor content, the bank is estimated to cost just £400,000 a year to run - 0.2% of schools' technology budgets. Under a commercial licence, the public would face a fee of about £5m a year.

There are those, however, who remain sceptical about the bank. Noel Jenkins is an advanced skills teacher in Somerset. His self-designed site, Juicy Geography, gets over a million hits a year from teachers looking to share his lesson plans. But he is critical about what he sees as the "command and control" nature of the NDRB. To maintain quality assurance, all of the bank's resources will be vetted by local authorities and/or the national learning grid. Jenkins thinks it is a mistake not to allow teachers and students to upload their own material directly.

"A moderated digital resource can never be as powerful as an unmoderated one," says Jenkins. "A lot of people don't know what a good ICT resource looks like, and I'm worried that teachers who are a little bit 'out there', creating new and innovative content, are going to be stifled by the moderators. It could well crush creativity."

In a recent lesson in his class in Somerset, Jenkins used the free online comic-creating site Pixton to get his students designing comic strips to explain the common agricultural policy. He posted the best strips on his site, encouraging other teachers to use them as a resource in their classes, and urging other students to update them with evolving agricultural policy.

Virtual filing cabinets

"We should be promoting tools rather than content," says Jenkins. "Students should be encouraged to be critical by remixing, commenting on and sharing the resources they are given. They should be creating their own content. YouTube, Google maps and Pixton offer advantages over traditional resources because they allow students to do those things. I'm worried that this bank won't address the real benefits ICT learning can offer - it's just replacing paper filing cabinets with virtual ones."

The NDRB doesn't just have conceptual challenges to meet - it also has practical ones. Every school's digital content has to be gathered and filtered through local authorities and/or national learning grids, a process requiring huge amounts of co-ordination. Although over 100 out of 150 local authorities are already engaged in the project, their enthusiasm will have to be maintained if content is going to be delivered and updated.

Knowsley council has decided to "back the bank". Leanne Hornsby, who heads ICT for the directorate for children and family services at the council, is a big fan. "We've been developing our virtual learning platforms for some time, but the biggest challenge for us was filling them with content," she says. "We have been able to contribute a significant amount to the bank, but we'll be able to receive a lot more in return. This couldn't have come at a better time."

Perfect or not, the NDRB is a welcome improvement on the present VLPs. But the old tension between centralised quality control and teacher autonomy exists as strongly in cyberspace as it does in the classroom. NDRB's managers are already murmuring about letting teachers and students upload and manipulate their own content directly in a few years' time. If the old structures will let them, the bank could go from useful resource to something truly radical.

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