When RGS developed a network system with the potential for an intranet, under the able and imaginative direction of the then Director of Computing, Dr Geoff Swinden, the way was opened to turn the paper based archive into an electronic one. Initial estimates of the space requirements were made; experiments with scanning and format determined the model to use. An early decision was to maintain the proven hand-written format, partly because typing mathematics is much more time-consuming, and partly because of an earnest desire to maintain the goal of the best that a student might produce.
First indications, in the summer of 1998, were that the project was very promising. It would take time to scan the work, and some of the network's early foibles would be annoying. Nevertheless, the students were enthusiastic, and the job was in principle quite straightforward. A group of A-level students at the school, under the leadership of Stephen Talbot, designed a presentation format and access system which was immediately an inspiration to continue, and is still essentially unchanged.
Several events contrived to turn the project in unforeseen directions.
The students rightly perceived the value to them of the resource, particularly during study leave, but it would be severely limited if it were only accessible from the school premises.
As those perceptions were crystallising, Geoff Swinden left, following the RGS management's decision to install a new network. That network proved ill-adapted to the work already done, and, moreover, the intranet was actually closed down for several months owing to security difficulties!
The need to escape from these frustrations coincided with the arrival of Freeserve and its "free" dial-up access to the internet - free in the sense that no subscription was required as on the existing models maintained, for example, by AOL and Compuserve. Freeserve played no direct part in the establishment of Meikleriggs, but their marketing drive proved a stimulus to their competitors to go one better. Those better deals included the offer of "unlimited" free webspace from, among others, Totalserve and Free-online. The unlimited offer was the impetus to establish Meikleriggs' Mathematics on the web and so free it from the spider's web of school provision.
The reliable dial-up service from Free-online proved to be the backbone of the web presence. The archive (which runs now to over 100Mb) was slowly established as the existing library was turned over to the new electronic medium. Since the department was frustrated by the RGS' scanner facility, all the work (with the exception of a handful of early pages) has been done on my personal machine (a Plustek 4830P). The work took about three years to complete, and by then the scope of the undertaking had condensed to the STEP Mathematics' papers, and GCSE and A-level Structured Mathematics on the MEI model.
The main purpose of the archive was ostensibly the provision of support for the students at RGS. None of us was unaware of the implications of making such an archive public, however. It was soon clear from the postbag that a great many users were from much further afield. Moreover the limited use of the STEP archive would hardly have justified the work of scanning those papers for internal use only. So that main purpose acquired an additional missionary zeal in furnishing a resource in support of all students - some of them on the other side of the globe - who were committed in a common cause.
The provision has not been without its critics! RGS students' homework on past papers certainly improved after the resource was created, and indeed such homeworks no longer serve to assess students' progress. Thus has begun a shift in which students assume more responsibility for themselves in the revision period, and teachers become more testers and counsellors rather than taskmasters; this is very much in the spirit of the age. The change has embarrassed some, and there have been colleagues - but not at RGS! - who have been quite antagonistic to the project's existence.
As the architect of this undertaking, which has taken up a great deal of my time over the past seven or eight years, I now view it as a considerable tribute to the RGS Maths' team; its valued use by the student body beyond the confines of RGS, measured by the steady flow of registrations and accelerating hit rate, is a source of satisfaction to all associated with it.
In 2003, the site established itself in subtly different ways. Behind the new development lies my own parting of company with RGS in summer 2003. Since RGS has contributed nothing to the scanning, the editing or the maintenance on-line, I have adopted it as my own; the alternative to doing so would be to discontinue it. During the same period, my own move to a broadband subscription - still with the faithful Free-online - has given me access to PHP programming and MySQL database facilities. These have been turned to good effect by the introduction of a user-registration system and a secure logon arrangement: the original access system whose design has proved its worth is now replicated in PHP.
I can now quantify both the user base and the usage rate; both these arrangements may be of use in attracting sponsorship. Some form of sponsorship will be essential to securing the site's long-term future. The first advertising banners went on the site at the end of December 2003.
Other new developments signalled by the parting of the ways between me and RGS are the introduction of Structured Mathematics' Decision Mathematics' modules - these are not part of the RGS' curriculum. This particular development is exclusively the initiative of Anne Ward of Heckmondwyke Grammar School. (There is certainly a waiting readership in the EDEXCEL camp too!)
So where now? A lot depends on my own employment future! I should like to think that such an obviously worthwhile undertaking will remain secure. It depends on those who contribute to it still and on the man-hours to enable those contributions. If the site had a sufficient level of sponsorship its continued success would be assured and future new developments would be made possible.....
30th December, 2003
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