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Connecting with the virtual school

The national intranet is a pragmatic response to the new age of information, says John Connell

ducation and technology share some key attributes. Neither is a neutral instrument. Both have been variously used throughout history to enhance and to damage humanity. It is therefore vital that any attempt to bring education and technology together should seek to serve humanity's interests, and never more so than when we are dealing with the education of our young people.

A number of educationists and technologists from across Scotland have been working together for four years to bring about real and lasting change in the way that ICT might be used to enhance teaching and learning in our schools. The Scottish Schools Digital Network (SSDN) is a programme whose origins lie in a desire to learn the lessons of the past and to ensure that Scotland is able to incorporate ICT into education in a constructive, pragmatic and humane way.

It is right and proper, of course, that a project of this scope and scale should come under scrutiny, and I am grateful to Tom Conlon (Platform, last week) for giving me the opportunity to answer the points he made in his critique of the project. It is a genuine pity that Dr Conlon chose to criticise the project from a purely ideological perspective, since even a little knowledge of the origins, development and philosophy of the network would have led him to a quite different set of conclusions.

While it is true that many have been beguiled over the years by the potential of ICT to transform learning, there are many more, especially in Scottish education, who are wholly realistic about achievements to date.

These are people who are not afraid of technological change and who understand that there is no simple relationship between technology and pedagogy. They see the flaw in the "pedagogy first, technology second"

argument (just as specious as "technology first, pedagogy second") since they have long since realised that there is a necessary dialectic between the two, a virtuous and ongoing cycle of seeing what works and what does not, and then changing practice as a result and trying again.

These people are practical. They accept the reality of technological development - they know it cannot be legislated or wished away - and they know therefore that they have to respond pragmatically to the pace of change if schools are not to be swamped, or even pushed aside, by the rapid expansion in digital technologies.

Two years of detailed debate and discussion with individuals from every education authority in the country enabled the emergence of a concept that is quite different from any previous attempts to deploy ICT in Scotland.

The isolated teacher or learner sitting at his or her isolated computer has proven to be of limited educational value. On the other hand, the heavy-handed, top-down model of "delivery" across a network, in which the desktop environment is tightly controlled from the centre, has proved equally inadequate. Such insights, combined with a fundamentally constructivist understanding of learning, led us inexorably to the concept of the national intranet that we have developed co-operatively in the Scottish education community.

Two years spent "doing the plumbing" - implementing the national broadband interconnect (connecting authorities, but not schools, since that remains the responsibility of local authorities) and installing the content delivery infrastructure - has given us the space to specify and procure a national intranet that is, I believe, wholly sympathetic to the insights of all those who participated in those early discussions.

We want a solution that will allow teachers and pupils to use the SSDN securely, to collaborate, build communities, share ideas, share resources, present and publish work. We want a solution that will permit teachers, over time, to redefine pedagogy through the synergy of their experience of what works and what does not with the new (and the often "not yet knowable") possibilities offered by digital technology. The fundamental aim is to devolve control of the powerful networked digital technologies now available directly into the hands of the individual teacher and learner in a way that makes them easy to use, and is self-evidently useful.

The national intranet will use web technology, within the secure setting offered by the national authentication of users, to present a virtual teaching and learning environment (VTLE) to teachers and students. This will be a highly flexible tool, able to be deployed in many different ways to suit the varying teaching and learning styles of its users.

The intranet will also create a massively adaptable collaborative environment, bringing together video and audio conferencing, chat rooms, mailing lists, news groups, authoring tools and virtual whiteboard facilities - all within a coherent, easy-to-use package.

Critically, the teacher and the pupil will have simple and direct control over these applications and will be able to determine their own approach to using them in their daily interactions with each other, with peers, with any other members of the community across Scottish education and with external "guests".

A teacher, for instance, will be able to use the intranet tools to create a community for their own professional purposes. That community might comprise the students in their class, school colleagues, colleagues elsewhere - indeed, any configuration of SSDN community members. They will not require external validation or management of these processes: they will be in charge.

The values that underly the SSDN are derived entirely from that forward-thinking community which has spent four years determining how to make good the mistakes of the past. These are people who know that it is necessary to make mistakes if we are to learn how to do things better.

These are people who desire a humane network that places the real power of the network directly into the hands of every individual teacher and pupil in the country, in a way that does not constrain how they choose to make use of the facilities it offers.

I would ask that we be judged on results and not on ideology or prejudice.

John Connell is director of the Scottish Schools Digital Network.

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