School networks battle for top spot

'No one knows the challenges faced by schools delving into IT,' says Nayland College network administrator and programming teacher Geoff Scrimgeour.

“No one knows the challenges faced by schools delving into IT,” says Nayland College network administrator and programming teacher Geoff Scrimgeour.

For nearly five years, the Nelson secondary school has been at the forefront of ICT (information and computer technology) in schools in this country, with a dynamic web and network-accessible intranet of more than 10,000 pages.

Scrimgeour believes no other school in the world is developing what he calls a “devolved child-web”, where pupils and staff create the majority of learning content. Even school reports can be accessed online.

But this unique position does come with challenges.

“Capital is a nightmare strain for us,” says Scrimgeour of the $1.3 million network. Government funding is limited as the school has a roll of just 450, and goodwill only extends so far in a town the size of Nelson.

Nayland College’s selection as a finalist in the Computerworld Excellence Awards Excellence in the Use of IT in Education (Schools) category is well deserved. The school’s system represents a conceptual shift to a more fluid model, where content reflects the culture of individuals and society.

“For us the corporate model is inappropriate,” says Scrimgeour. “Kids are all unique, and they create their own areas in our network.”

The second school finalist is Auckland’s Tamaki College, a decile one school that has one of the most sophisticated and user-friendly systems in a New Zealand school.

Its 100Mbit/s switched network of 175 PCs, which is connected to the outside world via a 128Kbit/s leased line, means one computer per 2.6 students. The school has a total of five specialist computer rooms.

Tamaki College works in partnership with Renaissance and is the first school in the country to use the RM Smart Tools network package — an educational network solution used throughout the UK — and the first to employ a software package from Integris.

The system enables control of issues that have proved frustrating in school environments, with PC settings returning to normal once students log off, no loss of files, and easily clearable printer queues.

Tamaki’s nomination hinges on the impact ICT has had on student grades and roll growth. It points to School Certificate results in 2000, which were up 14.4% in English, 12% in science, 10.3% in mathematics and 11.5% in geography on the year before.

The school also believes ICT has played a major part in reversing a declining roll, with 2001’s Year Nine roll enrolments standing at the highest for 10 years, and the Ministry of Education expecting 235% roll growth by 2005.

In the second of the awards’ two education categories — excellence in use of IT in tertiary community and commercial institutions — four unique web-based products and services have made it to the finals.

The Bubbledome interactive learning website encourages children to interact with a fantasy plot. The site includes writing and “invention” elements as well as a fun “fantasy weather report” — featuring such dangers as spaghetti storms — that children can manipulate in conjunction with the storyline.

The site works closely with teachers’ lesson plans, says creator Rebecca Allcock, who reports more than 100 schools and 2000 pupils are regular visitors.

“We saw there was a gap in the market for truly interactive online learning resources,” she says. “And we hope the experience of our site builds up the confidence of teachers.”

Allcock also says she has consultants in discussion with the Ministry of Education in Malaysia, and there are imminent plans for a Bubbledome television show.

Another child-focused finalist site is the ConsumerKids website, developed by Learning Media for the Ministry of Consumer Affairs.

It is the largest, fully bilingual site in New Zealand, developed to answer consumer-related enquiries from children that would normally be answered by the ministry via telephone or post.

The site is a humourous tour through a small town, encouraging children to explore consumer issues in English and te reo Maori.

Learning Link, an online database “training e-brokerage” system developed by Unitec’s business development wing, is also in the running for an education award.

The system assists with training decision management, says Unitec spokeswoman Sharon Abbott, who adds the polytechnic is negotiating to sell it to a company in the UK.

Learning Link is highly secure and accessible only from an organisation’s intranet. It has been used locally by the IRD to monitor training of its staff and achieves a high degree of transparency when processing training decisions, says Abbott.

The last of the education finalists is the University of Auckland for the nDeva project.

Ndeva is designed to do away with the frustrations of student enrolment and timetable processing, well known to anyone who has signed up for courses at the institution.

Based on PeopleSoft on an Oracle RDBMS, nDeva is a self service enrolment package that lets students enrol online from anywhere in the world, as well as select and modify their lecture and tutorial timetables, and even view their exam results.

The success of the project is obvious: 90% of students enrolled for this year’s papers via the web.

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