Integrating Productivity Tools in Primary and Secondary Education CLOUDS AND SUN

Using Telematics for Curriculum Sharing:
Some Thoughts on the BT Project, Tomorrow's Customers

Gordon James
Wickham Market County Primary School
Suffolk, England, IP130RP


Telematics is a European term meaning the coming together of telecommunications and infomatics, or information technology, in developing curriculum links between primary schools. Initially the link in this project was a two-way one between Wickham Market Primary School in Suffolk, England and Cwmaber Junior School, in South Wales. The project was made possible through the involvement of British Telecom research Laboratories, at Martlesham Heath, Suffolk, and it forms part of their larger project called 'Tomorrow's Customers." Established in June 1994, it is planned to run for at least until the year 2000. At present, August 1996, the project includes five primary and three secondary schools. With the introduction of the Internet links in September 1995, the nature of the project has broadened beyond the initial project schools.

The Schools

Wickham Market School is a primary school situated in a large village in Suffolk (eastern England), in a farming community about 8 miles from the sea. We have around 300 children aged from 4-11. I teach groups of children between the ages of 9 and 11 and am responsible for coordinating science and IT throughout the school. Cwmaber Junior School is in an ex coal-mining village in South Wales. It has 211 children between the ages of 7 and 11. Clive Jones, the deputy head, who teaches a class of 10-11 year olds, and Dyffed Davies, the headteacher, are both actively involved in this project.

The Hardware and Software

Before the project started, neither school had had any experience in using any telecommunications other than an ordinary telephone line, or in sharing areas of the curriculum with other schools. During the first year of the project, both schools were equipped, by British Telecom, with a Power Macintosh linked through ISDN telephone lines, a scanner, a color printer and conferencing telephones; Wickham had in addition a further Macintosh machine linked to the server. Since September 1995, Wickham Market School now has a fully networked computer area consisting of 12 Apple Macintosh computers and two printers. Each Macintosh computer is linked to the Internet, via British Telecom's (BT) Campus World server. In addition, both schools now have a PC based video conferencing computer. We use a range of Microsoft, Claris, Adobe and Aldus software as well as hyperstudio and a powerful screen sharing facility, Timbuktu Pro (Farallon). All external links are managed through two pairs of ISDN-2 lines, transferring data at 128K. At Wickham Market the network is located along one side of my large classroom.

How We Operate the Project

BT has left us free to develop curricular uses for the technology, providing technical support and advice when required. During the first phase, we were finding out what the technology could do and ironing out, with the help of BT, some of the inevitable technical problems. Since then we have evolved a mode of working that is loosely based around Margaret Riel's (1993) experience in the USA in setting up Electronic Learning Circles.

Each term the two schools decide on one or two curriculum areas that we want to share, decide on a manageable joint project within these curriculum areas, outline the learning objectives for our pupils, decide upon an attainable jointly authored end-product, and set a deadline for the production of this end-product.


Over the four terms during which the project has been running, we have had varied success at achieving these ends. Successful curriculum planning between schools situated at a distance and between teachers who may not necessarily share a similar set of pre-conceptions, is not always easy. As teachers, in order to achieve successful joint planning using this new technology, we have learned to:

  1. ??something is missing here
  2. Do careful planning between the two schools. To ensure that this happened, we developed the following methodology: Initial discussions on the phone and computer link to decide on the areas of the curriculum to be shared, an end product, and a time scale. During these sessions we have found Timbuktu, allowing us to share a screen and jointly write an agreed program, the most useful tool. We hold fortnightly on-line teacher meetings to plan work for the children and use joint evaluation at the end of the project.
  3. Keep the joint-project simple. Try to ensure that the end-product and the means of achieving it are attainable. We made the initial mistake of being too ambitious.
  4. Involve the children in the day to day processes of the project. We have so far found this the most difficult issue, as there is often so little time to discuss the planning behind the project with the children. Our aim is that the children in each school will themselves see a need to communicate with the other school rather than waiting for the teacher to tell them. This process requires time for reflection, a commodity not always readily available in schools today; however we do seem to be making steps in this direction.
  5. Try to achieve a suitable balance between on-line (synchronous) and off-line (asynchronous) work. At first we tried to achieve everything through synchronous sessions between groups of children. During this stage the children developed a growing social rapport though often the quality of the end product was less than satisfactory. In order to ensure this quality of work, the children need to engage in a mix of synchronous and asynchronous work, outlined as follows: Synchronous session involves the children in planning work or making request for information, using audio line, Timbuktu and/or video-conferencing computer. Asynchronous work is carried out in the schools, with material being sent backwards and forwards between schools using either Timbuktu, or email. Synchronous sessions are those in which children hold regular short meetings to evaluate progress, request information, make suggestions, or ask for help. Asynchronous work continues in schools. In synchronous sessions, pupils hold longer meetings to evaluate the project and plan future work, possibly together with the teachers.
    Due importance must be given to the work carried out separately within each classroom and the exchange of this work between the schools. This asynchronous part of the project allowed the children time to reflect upon work carried out in the other school and to return a considered opinion upon it. Through this process the children were learning to become a sympathetic but critical audience who considered the needs of the other group.
  6. Keep synchronous sessions short and to the point. Groups engaged in long, synchronous sessions tended to go off-task. The situation improved if there was a teacher present at one end, though this can inhibit the responses of the groups to some extent. The most successful synchronous sessions occur when the requirements of the task are well understood and attainable and the length of the session is restricted. We would expect the task to assume a greater importance as the children become more involved in its planning and feel more ownership for the task. We do see a role for children-teacher interactions over the link.
  7. Ensure that the process supports the school's broad curriculum, but be prepared to be flexible. Telematics will only be welcomed in schools when it can be shown to support the school's already existing broad curriculum. However, telematics works best in those schools that can be most flexible in its use. Some of the most exciting work within our project so far has came from the unplanned opportunities that arose and were followed up. With the increasing use of the Internet, this need for flexibility has increased.
  8. Agree on working protocols between schools. During the past year we have evolved a set of working protocols, such as: always ring before coming into the other school's screen; decide over the audio link who will be using the mouse or keyboard during a synchronous session; limit the size of graphic files being used during synchronous sessions. Further protocols will have to be worked out as other schools join the network.
  9. Ensure that the pupils evaluate the process. The pupils are expected to word-process a short, critical evaluation of each session and fill in an evaluatory questionnaire at the end of each term's project. Information from these evaluations has proved very useful in planning further projects.

Impact of the Project on the Pupils' Use of IT

Since October 31, 1994, every single IT usage on the computers has been logged. The base-line of IT usage before the project started has unfortunately not been recorded, but I know that it was considerably below the lowest level attained since the project's initiation. We were very much in the average category for information-technology development within the school.

Throughout the project, the pupils' use of IT throughout the whole curriculum (measured in minutes per school day) has grown steadily. The boys have shown a remarkably regular growth, while for girls it has been far more erratic. The IT skills of almost all the pupils are of a very high order indeed, both in terms of understanding the technology and understanding when and how to apply it appropriately. Allowing the pupils to make their own decisions about the use of information technology is a major feature of its use in our school.

During the first year of the project, year-5 pupils (9-10 year olds) made more use of the IT than year-6 pupils (10-11 year olds)-9.3 minutes a day for the average year-five pupil against 6 minutes a day for the average year-six pupil-a trend reflected in their general motivation across the whole curriculum. Girls have used the IT more than boys-8.2 minutes a day for the average girl against 6.8 minutes for the average boy. These trends have continued during the second year of the project, though total IT usage has increase in all groups with the provision of more computers. Minutes per day were 7.6 for the average pupil in the first year of the project rising to 16 minutes in the second year. Within the group of 70+ pupils, there is a considerable range in their use of IT, from 49 minutes per day down to fewer than 2 minutes per day, during the second year of the project. The opportunity to use IT during the school day is freely available. The computer network is situated in one half of my large classroom, and it is available during the whole school day, including school breaks and sometimes before and after school. Generally the pupils are left to make their own choice whether to use it or not, with the exception of designated IT lessons. As yet, I haven't found an obvious correlation between academic ability and IT usage, though closer analysis of the figures may reveal some trends.

The type of IT usage during the second year of the project was as follows: 55% essentially text based work, 22% essentially graphics, 7% database and spreadsheets, 9% research using either CD ROMS or Internet searches, and 7% on-line communication sessions. There are only small differences between the boys' and the girls' patterns of usage. With the pupils making increasing usage of multimedia packages such as power-point and hyperstudio, these distinctions, (e.g., between graphics and text) are becoming far less clear.

Impact of the Project on the Curriculum

Although the project has impinged upon most of the subject areas within the curriculum, including science, history, geography, maths and English, we were particularly looking for pupil improvement within the following skill-areas:

  • Research skills
  • Organizational skills
  • Presentational skills
  • Communication skills
  • Social skills of working co-operatively in groups within and between schools
  • Social skills of peer-tutoring
  • Social skill of being a sympathetic but critical audience

All of the teachers who have been actively involved in the project are convinced that the children's abilities in these areas have improved significantly, though these improvements are far harder to quantify than to recognize. During the third year of the project we will attempt to develop ways of describing these skills more accurately, as a pre-requisite to measuring them. In addition, there have been significant social benefits with levels of motivation being noticeably increased, especially in those children who were identified as lacking motivation or who presented behavioral problems at school.

The Introduction of the Internet

Since the start of the second year of the project we have had an internet link, through the British Telecom server Campus World from each of our twelve computers, using ISDN-2 lines. We have increasingly been developing this new telematic tool, initially through allowing the children to explore the new world and discover its potential for themselves. We early on discovered KIDLINK and started to build up a number of (short lived) key-pal exchanges. The existing link between Cwmaber and Wickham schools is being maintained but the learning circle is gradually being broadened, from an existing, secure base.

Using the Internet as a Database

We do draw upon the resources of the Internet for information to support existing school projects. Groups of children working on a joint weather project regularly download satellite images, while a group of 7-8 year olds, who were doing a project on Egypt, were helped by the older children to find relevant materials, mainly pictures and maps. At a personal level, I am using the Internet as a rich source of research material for a doctorate I am doing, based around the project. Other teachers are beginning to come to the network to find material, though this is still a very slow process.

Using the Internet as a Communications Tool

We still believe that the real power of all this "new" technology is its ability to allow people an easy and relatively cheap means of communication. We are increasingly looking for other schools, organizations or individuals with similar interests to share in our link in order to turn our two-way communication process into a true multidimensional-dimensional learning-circle. However we have learned that we need to move slowly and ensure that we don't lose what we have already created on the way.

Our first venture into this larger pool was through Kidlink, an organization based in the United States; instantly we become part of a community of 10-15 year olds spread throughout 80+ countries across the world. During the first month, our school has participated in two international surveys and individual children have developed email key-pals. These key-pal exchanges engendered considerable interest at first, but they all failed after a few months. It appears that children of this age need to be provided with a structure in order to maintain interest over a period of time. In the future, we will concentrate on working within structured projects over the Internet.

Since these early days, I have subscribed to numerous listservers and am at present (August 1996) becoming actively involved in several projects posted through the HILITES list on the Global SchoolNet Foundation, including one of our own making, called "Our Local River." The initial responses from this posting have been highly encouraging and supportive.

The Future of the Project

During the early summer of 1996, the British Telecom project began to focus our collaborative efforts into producing a WWW site on the theme "1000 years on the Orwell," the Orwell being one of our local rivers. The considerable technical resources of the BT labs are being placed alongside the schools' educational expertise. One of the project schools is being set up with an Internet-Server and we hope that the pages, which are at present in their early stages of development, will be available on the WWW within the next year, with a major publicity launch for the millennium in the year 2000. I see this development as a positive one, providing for the first time a single focus for the project schools. However, we must be vigilant to ensure that the technical process of producing the 'site' is subservient to the learning objectives of the pupils involved, and not the other way around. In educational projects of this kind, we must not allow a tail, however high-tech, to wag the dog.

As the first step in our involvement in this new phase of the project, the pupils at Wickham Market are basing large areas of next year's curriculum around the theme of rivers. Our geography topic for September will involve the development of a collaborative project on the theme of "rivers around the world" and how local communities use them for leisure and work. I wrote personally to around 50 teachers I have met on the Net over the last six months, suggesting a collaborative project and have also posted a project proposal on the HILITES list of Global SchoolNet Foundation. It will be interesting to compare the response from the two approaches, replies received within a week of the initial posting would indicate that the personal requests have produced the highest level of positive responses.

Developing Our Own Home Pages

The school recognizes that in the near future the use of the internet will be spreading rapidly within both the educational and the home markets. As a school, we feel we need to be visible when this development occurs and have set up a small working group of teachers, parents, and governors in order to design and set up our own WWW Home Pages. It is our intention that children will be heavily involved in the production of this site and will have responsibility for their own special-interest pages. Work on this will begin in September.

Concluding Thoughts
It is becoming increasingly obvious that telematics in one form or another will become a powerful working tool within our educational system, as well as in the community outside. Within schools, the interim phase we are now entering will be highly problematic, as the speed of technological innovation far outstrips the teachers' ability to keep up. At Wickham Market we have had no problems interesting the children in the technology and developing their IT skills, but we are finding it difficult to raise the awareness of the staff to the same level. This is not intended as adverse criticism, as teachers here, as elsewhere, are already considerably stretched.

In order to get over this stage, the technology needs to be introduced carefully and sympathetically and to prove itself as a useful tool for developing the existing curriculum of the school. The hardware and software that carries it will also need to be simple, transparent, and reliable. I expect that telematics, having proved itself, will begin to change the very nature of how teachers teach and pupils learn; but this stage is in the future and must not be rushed.


Riel, M. (1993). Global education through learning circles. In L. Harasim (Ed.), Global networks-Computers and international communication. Cambridge: MIT Press, USA, pp. 221-236.

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