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Call for good content;Cover feature;National Grid for Learning

The National Grid for Learning will only work if it offers schools good content. But the danger is that by focusing on developing the grid's infrastructure, this message is getting lost. The New Opportunities Fund (NOF), responsible for allocating Lottery funding, has set aside pound;50 million for digitising educational content for the Internet. The NGFL Standards Funding has allocated 15 per cent for content, but some LEAs have been somewhat liberal in their definition of "content".

"There has been an abuse of money being spent on content, with a lot of it going on hardware. The software industry has not benefited from the 15 per cent set aside for content," notes Granada Learning's Nigel Ward. David Eccles, Granada Learning's general manager, says his company has ambitious plans for putting more content online.

There is a lot of good, free content on the Internet but Peter Stibbons, managing director of Anglia Multimedia, says: "Putting quality content on to the Internet involves a lot of investment. You have to pay teachers to create it, then there are designers and software developers, and the clearing of copyright."

So while the free stuff is out there somewhere, more schools are now paying for online educational content. Anglia Multimedia and BT have formed AngliaCampus, an educational online service with over 1,100 subscribers. And RM's Living Library has over 8,500 school subscribers. "Two years ago, people laughed at us when we said we were starting a subscription service," says Finbar McGaughey, RM's business manager for online reference, "but a lot of the free materials on the Internet are samples or abstracts of low value to a teacher. Living Library offers over two million articles and the materials are cleared for educational use."

One reason why schools are prepared to pay is so they can be sure of the quality of what the content. Matthew Slack, an ICL marketing executive, explains: "Having a trusted brand name is important when choosing content and I hope the NGFL will become the trusted provider of educational material." But to reach this state will require more investment in content, according to Granada's Ward: "There's a danger that any additional funding will simply be used for upgrading hardware," he warns.

Some policy shapers, like Stephen Heppell, director of the Ultralab research unit at Anglia Polytechnic University, believe the NGFL should be used by schools for sharing content with others, but others have their doubts. "There's an assumption that teachers are going to produce a lot of content and make it freely available," says Andy Bostock, chairman of DIALnet, an educational Internet service provider. "But many teachers don't have the time or skills to do this. The major providers of educational content will be today's specialist publishers."

Sheyne Lucock, executive committee member of the ICT co-ordinators' association ACITT, agrees. "The idea that schools will produce content for the NGFL will not take off. Teachers find it difficult preparing material for their classes and if you put something on the Net, you're laying yourself open to criticism. It requires a cultural shift," he says.

"It's a barrier that we really have to get through," agrees Danny Owen, an executive member of NAACE, the ICT advisers' association. But he sees a solution: "Children don't have this problem and perhaps, as more kids publish their work on the Net, more teachers will follow them."

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