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Cruising on a super highway

Colleges are finding co-operation is the key to using the Net. Harvey McGavin reports

Colleges are being urged to join forces to capitalise on opportunities offered by the Internet - the international network of computers which aims to be a global instant communications system.

It started out as a military intelligence network, quickly captured the imaginations of academics and is now big business. Everyone from The TES to the Poetry Society is interested.

Government demands for Pounds 100 million cuts from FE capital funds over the next three years have left cash-strapped colleges struggling to implement Higginson Report recommendations on computers published in January. This was the definitive study of the state of computers in colleges and their future needs.

But a meeting last month between the telecommunications watchdog (OFTEL) and FE representatives offers some hope for colleges. OFTEL, which had originally left FE colleges out of plans for discounted Internet access for schools, is to lobby for a reduced tariff across the whole of education.

Meanwhile, some groups of colleges are showing the way. A network of 25 colleges in the North-east, with money from the Government's Competitiveness Fund, went on-line in December.

At Darlington College 600 terminals will eventually be wired up to a "broad band" cable system, offering instant access to the Internet and computers at the other participating colleges. Broad band systems give access to a far wider range of media - computers, videos, telephones - than the "narrow band" telephone.

Demand is already such that students are limited to two-hour sessions and even come into the college on weekends to use the system.

"We are producing lists of all the appropriate areas that are relevant to a particular student's subject," says principal Peter Shuker. "It is an amazing source of information. These are quite exciting times - the learning potential for students is enormous."

Peter Shuker estimates that around 50 colleges are currently on-line "but all that is going to change in the next 12 months". He says the cost of going on-line - about Pounds 30,000 a year - is still a good investment. "It's a one-off payment and the more you use it, the better value it becomes.

"For a college to do it on its own is an expensive business. The best way is to get into a consortia. If you have got a friendly university prepared to collaborate then that's a cost-effective way of doing it."

Hammersmith and West London College has already done so, clubbing together with six other FE institutions in the capital. Their start-up costs were around Pounds 50,000 each and they were helped by the University of London and the Government's Competitiveness Fund.

Sue O'Halloran, assistant principal at West London and Hammersmith, says they are only beginning to realise its potential uses. Shared courses delivered via the common link and new forms of distance learning are just two schemes in the pipeline.

"Everybody is very interested but they are unfamiliar with the Internet. We are developing curriculum materials and assignments to help them learn about it. It is expensive but we felt that it's an area we want to develop. Information technology is going to have more and more of an impact on the way people learn."

The National Council for Educational Technology sees the establishment of a network similar to the universities' Joint Academic Network (JANET) system as "crucial" for the future of further education. NCET's Geoff Morgan says that around 4,500 educational establishments have access to the Internet.

But the vast majority of these are schools with simple telephone connections which are slow and hence expensive, he says. "We want to encourage operators to bring in broad band and we are trying to give advice and support to FE colleges on that."

John Gray, a member of the Higginson committee and principal of Newark and Sherwood College in Nottinghamshire, says that getting connected to the Internet is only part of the problem.

He believes that the Higginson Report recommendations on staff development, continuing research, information, advice and a nationwide college network must be implemented together to get the best from the Internet.

The cost of going on-line should be weighed against the need for adequate on-site hardware. "It's fine if you have an extensive internal network, but not if the Internet only comes in on one computer in the corner of the library. "

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