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Are champions losing ground?

Wales started the e-race well with exciting proposals, but it still has a long way to go to put its ideas into practice. Martin Whittaker reports

Wales is still far from reaching a consensus on e-learning, according to its minister for education and lifelong learning, Jane Davidson.

In a progress report on Wales's e-learning strategy, the minister admits that the country is only at the early stages of a long-term process to identify the benefits technology can bring to learning. She says the Assembly government is about to start a new phase of work in which "it will review its methods of seeking and exchanging advice and information on ICT and e-learning".

The Assembly is understood to be considering Wales's e-learning strategy in the broader context of developing other sectors such as health and local government, as well as schools and colleges.

A spokesman said the Welsh Assembly will publish its enhanced e-learning strategy in spring 2005 "to provide a clear framework for demonstrating and evaluating action."

In the report Jane Davidson said that although there are many different and exciting examples of e-learning in action, "we still lack clear understanding of the full extent of its benefits and implications".

Wales has been regarded as being way ahead of England in developing the use of ICT in education and training. Its e-learning strategy consultation document, produced in April last year, called for a national e-learning policy for Wales.

Proposals included creating a national integrated e-learning network, high-quality online learning programmes, a system of support for learners, and a "national observatory" for research.

But in some quarters there has been frustration that no action plan has yet been produced since last year's consultation document, and there are fears that Wales could be losing ground.

"Everybody's waiting to see what the next steps are," said one college principal.

The National Assembly's progress report cites examples of the work being done to lay the foundations. This includes Assembly officials starting work with local education authorities to prepare an ICT strategy for schools.

There is also a bid to create a grant scheme for Welsh local authorities to connect schools, libraries and ICT learning centres in remote areas.

And Jane Davidson praises progress made by ELWa - Wales's post-16 funding body - and Ufi Cymru - the company (formerly the University for Industry) that runs Learndirect - for improving the range of support services and learning materials available for learners and providers in Wales.

Wales's 24 further education colleges have developed a successful system of ILT (information and learning technology) champions. Funded by ELWa, and now in its third year, the scheme allows each college to have a full-time ILT evangelist. A similar scheme has been tried in English colleges, but in Wales the champion's role is much broader - their remit is to develop the confidence of staff to make full use of technology to support learning.

At Llandrillo college in North Wales, ILT champion Peter Richardson, who also chairs Wales's ILT champions network, says a big part of his job is improving the IT skills of lecturers and support staff. He says the impact of the scheme is difficult to quantify, but he believes its take-up by college staff across Wales is "slow and patchy". He detects a reluctance to embrace e-learning.

"Most people will write on a static whiteboard and give out paper handouts," he says. "What I'm trying to do is to have lecturers doing handouts over the web, so that students can access that information any time - not at the convenience of the lecturer, but at the convenience of the learner.

"Part of me thinks it's an alien approach to teachers. Teachers like to teach and they feel that electronic resources pull them away from that.

They become more of a facilitator than teacher.

"Well, really, that's what we should be doing - we should be facilitating learning."

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