Schools OnLine 1995 - 96

Stephen's reflection at the end of 2013:

I think this was a remarkable report for 1995 after our first year of the project. So much of the future of the WWW in schools was abundantly clear after that first year - and although this might have got lost in a decade of huge and misguided commercial "content is king" attempts to "deliver" learning (the root of the failure of the dotty dot com era) this report showed that there was a contributory, owned, annotated, community way that could demonstrably be hugely popular and would be highly effective for learning. Indeed, nearly 20 years later, in learning we have seen myriad projects finally confirming that it can be just that.

But this was all back in 1995. I love the little lines in this report that give you a sense of where we all were back then:

"We also needed to write an on line editor. This was ambitious, nobody else had done it"

Exciting times - as they still are. Anyway, here is the report:

SoL logo

Report at the end of the 1st project year 1995
Prof Stephen Heppell

jump straight to conclusions


There was considerable public debate in education at the outset of SoL about the value of the Internet for education: too much content, too little quality, no UK curriculum focus, pornography, trivia, inaccuracy the criticisms came thick and fast. At the same time this was clearly a situation where the market was driving everything forward and it was stimulating to work with sponsors who had a clear interest in both the evolving market that the Internet promised and who had a track record of working with and alongside schools.

One year on and although Internet scare stories are still good media copy, the debate about the relevance of the Internet for schools has been replaced with arguments over access. "Do we want it?" has been replaced by "How much of it can we get?" and this above all else is a measure of a year's progress.

All the sponsors and the DTI should be delighted by this alone, but the first year of SoL has taught everyone a lot more too

Media and publicity

And what SoL has helped everyone to learn has been shared with a very large audience. So much general interest in the Internet in general inevitably translated into specific interest in Schools OnLine. Media and publicity are mentioned this early in the report to acknowledge the importance of visibility outcomes to sponsors, to the DTI, to minister Ian Taylor MP who has given the project his unswerving support and to the self esteem of the children involved for whom the media coverage and enthusiasm provided a wonderful bonus.

SoL publicity fell largely into four categories:

1) Presentations to conferences.

In the first year of Schools OnLine, from Ultralab Prof Heppell gave the keynote address, or presented a plenary (ie to everyone present) address to a large number of significant conferences in the UK:

In every case SoL was mentioned, graphics were shown and the URL was given at the end of the presentation.

Other SoL people too - ICL's Tom King, the Modern Language and Science teams, - also presented to a good number of conference audiences }(and in the case of the subject teams that especially included subject specific ones) in addition to the list above and that was just in the UK; we haven't listed overseas presentations but these included, for example, a keynote to the Secondary Heads Association in New Zealand. All of these conferences were accompanied by extensive publicity and in many cases transcripts were made publicly available after the event too.

This amounts to a very, very substantial body of publicity and no doubt helps account for the exceptionally high levels of interest in the project.

2) Newspaper coverage.

SoL had many reports and reviews, always favourable, in the national press - several mentions in the Guardian, Telegraph, Independent, Times, Sunday Times, Observer, Daily Mail, Financial Times, with single mentions in other national titles, - many mentions in the more 'specialist' educational press - for example the Education, Times Educational Supplement, Educational Computing, etc - and regular sympathetic coverage in the 'computing' press where every popular 'about the Internet' type magazine ran a piece, in addition there were articles in everything from the Internet Intelligence Review, Network Week or Byte, through hardware specific titles like Acorn User and MacUser, to the parent focussed Easy PC and Family Computing.

Best of all, perhaps because from day one we were proactive in supporting media coverage (by offering support materials for schools to use in contacting their local journalists, including a comprehensive list of Frequently Asked Questions) SoL enjoyed a torrent of local media coverage as each school leveraged the opportunity to tell parents about the Internet.

October '95 press cuttings alone included:

the Oxford Mail, the St Albans and Harpenden Observer, the Coventry Evening Telegraph, the Nuneaton Telegraph, the Rugby Telegraph, the Wigan Evening Post, the Manchester Evening News, the Bracknell News, the Crowthorne Owlsmoor and Sandhurst Newsweek, the Evening Leader, three different Evening Gazettes, the Hunts Post (twice), the St Ives Weekly News, the Birmingham Evening Mail, two Evening Posts, two Evening Advertisers, the Islington Gazette & and Stoke Newington Observer, the Romford Recorder and the Birmingham Evening Mail in addition to a weight of nation press coverage.

This all amounts to an unprecedented quantity of column inches and visibility.

3) Word of mouth, hearsay and recommendation

We had a SoL stand at BETT, Olympia's huge educational technology show and chatted with a very substantial number of people at the show; the stand was always busy. Most of the SoL sponsors also featured SoL in some way on their stands; on Apricot's for example the SoL front page was their primary stand graphic.

SoL was regularly referenced (favourably!) in material produced by groups as diverse at the Parents Information Network and the National Council for Educational Technology.

4) The site itself...

...was probably the widest channel of dissemination and this happened at every level from the personal to the international: "I have found your pages very interesting and useful. I have passed on your URL to the rest of my colleagues at <name> School, Manchester"

There are now innumerable hot links and references to the SoL pages, including a number of "awards for best" lists. For example:

"Hi! We're very pleased to inform you that your Website has been rated among the "Top 125 Web sites" by Webdo.... "Top 125" is not a contest: our ratings are based only on merit. We invite you to display the "Top 125" badge, which is only authorised to homepages included on our list..."

In a news forum it is easy to find many references to SoL. For example this contribution to a debate by a drama lecturer in a drama conference:

"It seems to me that there is great interest in this (SOL) initiative and a great deal of good will (rare within the education sector of late)"

Of course, the generous support of a Minister and of the DTI's press office all helped enormously but SoL has probably had more and better media attention than any similar government project and maintaining this momentum in the second phase will be important.

Certainly it has got to more teachers with its information than might have been anticipated and this in no small way reflects the ownership and involvement that many teachers not only felt, but had, for Schools OnLine.

Guiding principles:

1) Firstly, our intention was to test the veracity of three propositions:

I that the enough of the content readily available on the Internet was useful and relevant for schools and school students

II that teachers and students could add value to that content without necessarily creating wholly new material, and

III that the communication element of the Internet was as important as the dissemination element.

2) Teachers are currently fairly hard pressed in schools. If SoL was to succeed it needed to be attractive enough to transcend their workload and the inevitable 'scarce resources' debate that would still follow whatever level of support sponsors contributed. Certainly a solution that imposed itself on teachers was unlikely to succeed but would the notion of teachers as action researchers hold enough currency to engage their interest and enthusiasm?

3) We wanted to open the door to individual contribution - not schools doing their 'electronic brochures' with mission statements and crests, but students work with a sense of audience for each others' contributions. Remember that at the start of SoL there were no simple and readily available HTML editors, no HTML filters in word processors and some confusion about which parts of the HTML standard would even be implemented.

4) Although the equipment and connections, together with staff development and technical help, were often contributed by the generosity of sponsors we did not want to suggest that one terminal could address the needs of a school of 1,000. For this reason (and there was some early debate about this) the intention was to focus the terminal on a limited range of activity6 and a limited number of students. If it worked, more terminals would be needed to deliver the same experience across an average sized school.

5) We wanted individuals involved to have their own mail ID. Previous experience (with our Nortel project) had convinced us that this above all else was a key to engaging students and teachers.

6) We wanted to produce an evolving system, not pinned down at the start; the Internet was evolving too quickly to do otherwise. This report will return to these themes and reflect of the project in their context (see Conclusions below).

Timing and use:

The timing of school use changed.

In the first months the traffic to the site was concentrated heavily into the 'institutional space' in the day: before registration, during break and lunch, after school. This was closely in line with previous data from other earlier 'on line' projects.

But quickly, as the project went on, the distribution of use flattened and became spread not only across the day, but the day started earlier and finished later too.

The graph above represents the end of the first term of SoL (sorry - I'm working to salvage the graph).

By later on it was of course also clouded by international access and home access.

Access from UK homes increased hugely, largely we think as a result of the extensive and supportive media coverage and the presence of SoL pages in the results of many on line search engines (because it was such a big site).

The 'latest' (or is it earliest?) log we have from a school is 3.00 am for example!

We think usage data may reveal two things:

Firstly, it seems to confirm the embedding of the Internet into both the curriculum and the school organisation. The Internet provision was clearly used and was available for use during lesson times.

Secondly it is likely that this reveals pressure for use of the system (ie it was very popular in school) and the flattening time usage curve reflects an optimisation of the provision, the students that were active on the project themselves wanted more time to explore and contribute whilst more outside that group wanted to "have a go".

In the current climate of schools and the pressure on their time it is unlikely that either of these would be able to happen without considerable perceived curriculum relevance.

Inevitably schools were quickly looking for faster access, better bandwidth and networked solutions internally. A clear indication that the DTI and the sponsors' objectives were being met from day one.

The software framework - hydra and beyond

Technical complexity - client

It is always important to place this first year of SoL in the context of what has been a rapidly developing phase of software development. At the start of SoL very little of HTML3 had been implemented. There are many schools, they run many systems on many hardware platforms and the whole technology is evolving rapidly. This is unlikely to change, indeed complexity many well increase (for example as the variety of optional plug-ins vary functionality).

Clearly ANY attempt at standardisation would have stifled most of the technological progress in the lifetime of SoL but the cost to us at Ultralab was a significant overhead in wrestling with multiple problems like these:

"What would you recommend we use to write HTML for Webexplorer with OS2 ?"

"this may be because I am using a new Archimedes browser from ANT instead of Mosaic on the PC"

"One problem I note as I write this (may be a fault in the browser) there is no wordwrap and I have to put my own newlines in otherwise the window scrolls sideways like Borland editors and that's rather disconcerting. Will there be wordwrap with this on Netscape?"

Technical complexity - server

From day one of SoL we wanted to provide four things:

  1. A canvas for contributions - a creative space for students or teachers and the tools to allow authoring online.
  2. Some pointers to the use of Internet resources that reflected a teacher's role.
  3. A responsive, flexible and evolving system that allowed us to make progress over the year.
  4. A fast service.

Producing the canvas for contributions required us to generate a 'component' model of functionality so that, for example, students wanting to add 'comments' to their home pages could do so by adding a standard line of html and our cgis, graphics and functionality would be implemented. We even adopted initially a 'washing line' metaphor - the washing "items" varied:

washing line metaphor

...(which we dropped later for a 'tile' one) to allow various mixes on functionality to be present on any page.

We were thus able to replace graphics and revise their function without needing to change student or teacher work. This worked well.

We also needed to write an on line editor. This was ambitious, nobody else had done it (including Netscape) and we needed to think not only about the code (which was hard) but about giving users the ability to move files around within a hierarchy of their own making so that they were fully in control of structure and function of their pages.

We had to provide page design guidelines, suggestions, a tutorial and, finally we had to make the editing capability visually apparent through the interface. Then we had to arrange password protection for each school and mail out the passwords

This feature worked; no other Internet project in the world could do this at the start, it evolved and was certainly not perfect at the start. However, comments from schools revealed two encouraging things:

firstly there was a general appreciation of what we were trying to do (and of how hard it was). Lots of quality feedback resulted:

I've managed successfully to load my pages onto your server (it's clever stuff, I'm impressed!) but when I go via the list of participating schools I still get the empty place holder. I can only reach my page by adding "index.html" to the school directory.

Secondly even schools that were reluctant to use the editor changed their view of the Internet because the editors existed; their access to it made them aware of the 'democratic' opportunity to contribute; it stopped being someone elses' system and became theirs. This ownership and audience is very important:

So what do you think of our homepage?
Did you like it or not?
What did you like and what did you dislike about our homepage?
We are open for constructive critisim.
Thank you for taking the time to look at our homepage.

or The page is not quite finished yet, but Hey we're not perfect!!

Feel free to click on the various Icons and names to find out more about our school!

Producing some pointers to use was done obviously through the subject teams and a real pleasure in the first year was watching their progress but two other initiatives were worth reporting:

The Annotators index used (largely) by teachers to pre-brief readers before sending them to a site ("Before you go, think about this") and to de-brief them as they returned ("now, having seen that, think about these issues"). Importantly this annotation model illustrated a reductionist and annotative methodology familiar to teachers and gave them confidence that their skills as teachers had a role on the Internet. Another pointer to use was our Christmas Advent calendar. Simply pointing each day to a 'surprise' URL that combined Christmas with curriculum relevance was simple but hugely effective. The page took a very large number of hits and for many the diversity of useful sites provided a justification of the Internet in its own right. Many journalists credited the site (eg Jack Schofield in the Guardian) and used it to suggest to parents that the Internet was full of useful material.

Thnaks rather late for your wonderful Advent Calendar. I only just found it today (got connected for Christams!) Please leave the calendar up at least until the new school term, I want to convince my teacher that the Internet is not all rubbish and sad people. Thanks again.

In building responsive, flexible and evolving system we came up against one interesting problem. We wanted to change the front page regularly (and indeed developed a technical solution to a modular graphics to offer easy change) but were told by many that the familiarity of the SoL front page was important and "can it stay as it is". The problem then was how to 'flag' new material and changes. We resolved this in the end by a "new pages" database which proved to be a very popular feature and probably our most bookmarked page but it taught us that familiarity is important and comforting too.

These pages became so popular that the external "news" announcements took on a role of their own as a noticeboard largely, we think, because of the number of people looking at them and because it was so easy to author a notice.

The database was a good solution, the subject teams, schools and even sponsors could add to it easily and many did. It was the beginning of the database engine on which we will be building SoL2 and allowed simple but effective features like automating the image that accompanied news: for Ultralab news, or for science news for example.

Providing a fast service gave us any number of headaches and we spent a lot of time solving everyone elses' problems as well as our own. Especially in the early days when connections failed or were slow everyone assumed it was our fault. Sometimes it was of course, but mostly it was a problem with the service provider, with the school (famously one school shared a phone line with a fax machine and reported 'our' intermittent service which was finally traced to being when the fax was in use!) and in some cases with SuperJanet which itself was evolving a better service, especially with the US and thus with service providers relying on US links.

The service providers were wonderful and we spent literally hours on the phone as they ran traces back and forwards to optimise their link to SuperJanet and to us. We worked very hard to produce bandwidth friendly graphics (working on palettes, file formats, compression, etc) that were fast to upload and interlaced but inevitably on a slow modem, the service was slower.

At the final conference it was interesting that with a shared ISDN line (thanks to RM) some people were still commenting that the service appeared blindingly fast, where for others the performance was just normal and this reflects the diversity of provision still out there at the client end.

The unexpected

We were surprised (but with hindsight should not have been) by the deluge of interest from outside SoL in the server and its functionality. This ranged from the flattering:

Brilliant idea so far.

or "Hello I think what Ultra lab is trying to do is great.

and Greetings from Orlando, Florida! I really enjoyed viewing your web pages. I am a science teacher at Dr. Phillips high school here in Orlando

to the many, many "can we join in" and "can you send information" messages:

"I am a Youth Worker with Hearing Impaired children (3 - 16 yrs). SOL seems to provide excellent access to the NC for this group of children. Can you supply me with any info that would be of special interest to me /the children? In fact am I at liberty to access info from here for the children? How many HI children have access to SOL? Many Thanks"

almost always these required quite complex answers and processing the feedback enquiries was a regular daily job for one person in the lab, often involving many more as we sought answers. We were happy to do this and it was a real contribution to dissemination.

However, a real question for research projects like this in the future concerns the extent to which they open their doors to other researchers to actually visit and sit in on schools, meetings etc.. For many a quick visit to a SoL school was a problem free way to get their dissertation written but at the real cost of teachers' goodwill. I am fairly certain that we should offer a blanket "no" to all requests to 'piggy back' onto SoL until after it ends, when we might arrange a "guest researchers open day" to be as helpful as possible without inconveniencing the schools.

In Conclusion

Returning to Guiding Principles, it is interesting to reflect on what was achieved, and what was not, in year 1 of SoL.

1) Firstly, our three propositions:

I At the end of year 1 of SoL there is no longer any substantial debate about whether the content readily available on the Internet is useful and relevant for schools and school students. There is general agreement that it is, with the help of a good teacher and appropriate support. The debate is shifting instead to organisation and assessment issues.

II It was clear that will the right opportunities and tools, teachers and students can add value to that content without necessarily creating wholly new material. They frequently did.

III The communication element of the Internet is important. We were disappointed not to be able to offer an individual mailbox to all students and staff (we will do this ourselves in SoL2) and as a result in the first part of year 1 schools constantly clamoured for more and better communications with each other. In the end we addressed this by launching Newsgroups (eventually) which were quickly busy. In their absence, the Feedback Forum - really just there as a place to post comments quickly, became much more significant than we intended and needed daily management.

2) We suggested that if SoL was to succeed it needed to be attractive enough to transcend teachers' workloads and wondered if the notion of teachers as action researchers hold enough currency to engage their interest and enthusiasm. It did, and this was a very significant finding, especially for the DFEE and the Teacher Training Agency, we think. Teacher didn't just accept the notion of being action researchers in an evolving project, they wholeheartedly welcomed it

"I know it's taking up a lot of my time but I really feel that I making a contribution and that we are discovering important things together. I haven't felt like this in teaching since developing Mode 3 CSEs (if you are old enough to remember them!)".

3) We wanted to open the door to individual contribution - not schools doing their 'electronic brochures' with mission stUatements and crests, but students work with a sense of audience for each others' contributions. Despite the evolving nature of our editor they did just this and although we made it quite clear that there was no requirement to produce pages many did so. To our delight, as soon as they had done so, we were deluged with messages to look at and comment on the results and indeed schools outside the SoL group were (rightly) jealous of this opportunity to publish to the world:

"We are developing a modern languages home page about the school and the local big cities, Bath and Bristol. But what's the use if you cannot share them with other people. Your Schools Online project looks like something we can get involved in. Is there someone I can contact to get further information about joining the project".

4) The intention was to focus the SoL terminal on a limited range of activity and a limited number of students. For all schools this proved hard - everyone wanted to be involved and some schools reported students standing two and three deep behind the monitors as the SoL students worked away. We had a constant flow of mail asking to expand the curriculum areas covered too:

"What no Technology section in your curriculum area? I hope that you can support this very important ( and very relevant to the internet) subject I and others in E. Sussex schools would very much like to start to share Technology related subject information. Please let me know of any developments in your site. Thanks"

5) We wanted individuals involved to have their own mail ID. This proved to be impossible and the sponsor we hoped would contribute a managed mail server host did not, for good reasons of their own which we understood. Anything else was unlikely to be very effective because the way in which different schools managed their mail boxes varied so much.

"If you reply to my note this box gets read by a number of others in the school and it is not really 'mine' so please put for the attention of me in the subject. Thanks (and sorry)"

The result was uncertainty when sending messages without the 'sense of certainty of audience' that individual mailboxes provide:

"Quite interesting to see the number of schools that are "on line." we are looking forward to contacting a number of them and exchanging ideas on life love and all that stuff happy valentines day to whoever this is going to and I hope you actually bother reading all this. Anyway your schools thing looks pretty good and all that congratulations".

We intend to do the mail server job ourselves in SoL2 and have costed it into the proposals.

6) We wanted to produce an evolving system, not pinned down at the start. That hope proved not only possible, but inevitable.The list of technology changes on the Internet during the first year of SoL would be longer than this report and change was inevitable but in particular the system was able to be responsive to the views of the schools and the subject teams. SoL2 builds on the experiences of SoL1.

There is still a lot to learn and share and of course the technology will continue to progress with rapidity but with the willingness of teachers, the confidence of their students, even more subject teams with keen imaginations, the support of the sponsors, the commitment of Ian Taylor and the administrative bedrock of Tom King, the second year promises more yet.

It should be another good year.

Professor Stephen Heppell, for the whole SoL team
© 1995