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Digital dot-to-dot

John Anderson explains why Northern Ireland is building the largest computer network in the world for its schools

In one of the classrooms, a group of senior literature pupils is discussing EM Forster. "What a pity," one remarks, "that EM Forster couldn't have seen how wrong he was about technology in The Machine Stops."

This scenario is one of several in emPowering Schools, the new strategy consultation for ict in Northern Ireland's schools. The title refers to how electronic and online multimedia may empower teaching, learning and school leadership over the next five years. This comes at a time when the statutory curriculum is being revised, with skills and competencies moving centre stage, to better address the needs of young people in the 21st century information economy.

Once implemented, the curriculum will look very different. Alongside literacy and numeracy, ict competence will be reported annually. Formative assessment will provide feedback for pupils on individual strengths and weaknesses and replace key-stage testing.

The Curriculum and Examinations Council will soon report, with Edexcel, on the strategic Paperless Examination project, which demonstrated the feasibility of reform of computer-based, high-stakes examinations. What is needed now is the appetite for regulatory change in public examinations.

The futuristic scenarios described above go on to envisage pupils submitting work on the school network, taking part in group sessions through video-conferencing when not in school, borrowing Tablet pcs and taking assessments online. Teachers should be able to assign coursework threads for their pupils through radio-connected personal digital assistants (pda), working in online teams with local and international experts to create new resources and courses, and computers on school premises being accessible over 12 hours a day.

These visions of 2020 are represented in new strategy for 2008, which builds ambitiously on the pound;250 million injection in infrastructure and connectivity by Classroom 2000 (c2k) and aims to see practice transformed, "so all young people will learn, with, through and about the use of digital and online technologies".

Over the past 18 months, the Northern Ireland eLearning Partnership has brought all the stakeholders together to learn about elearning, to build models of effective practice, kite-mark standards for online provision and identify professional development needs, post-nof (New Opportunities Fund).

eLearning pilots have shown that elearning means more than providing enriched content. The strategy places the emphasis on the interaction between teacher and learners, and sees innovation in practice range from using the internet during a lesson, to taking part in online courses.

The pilots range across the curriculum and from key stage 2 to as level.

They show how ict may help to reorganise secondary schooling, as part of the current government plan to replace the transfer test for 11-year-olds.

The pilots also address professional development. They are building capacity and creating a grasp of issues in design, pedagogy, assessment and mentorship, and the effective blending of online and face-to-face environments to form "communities of practice".

The Regional Training Unit, charged with leadership development, is running the first online programme of professional development, using e-portfolios, for staff of the advisory and support organisations. It will be validated through the Open College Network and will be managing local and international reference visits for headteachers. Online access to materials, peer-to-peer email and file-exchange facilities are now no longer optional but are mandatory requirements of the Professional Qualification for Headship in Northern Ireland.

Achieving the vision will require more infrastructure innovation. As in the past, these changes will happen because of a single, integrated approach, locally supported and implemented across the province.

We believe it's only by joining the digital dots that everyone gets to see the big picture.

John Anderson is educational technology strategy co-ordinator for Northern Ireland

C2k Northern Ireland

* 40,000 networked computers, together with existing multimedia systems, and 12,000 laptops (about 70,000 systems), have brought the average computer:pupil ratio to 1:5

* 200 nationally licensed curriculum titles are provided locally on C2k school networks

* Learning NI, the filtered online learning environment, run from a 160-server HP data centre in Belfast, will, later this year, stitch together the 1,245 local school networks into a single network and provide all 400,000 users with their own password, mailbox and protected area

* C2k provides managed infrastructure, connectivity, services containing content and assessment for a school's curriculum, professional development, administration and management needs

* Long-term sustainability of provision is secured for schools through government strategy

emPowering Schools 2008

The strategy emphasises:

* How to realise the benefits of investment in ICT

* Embedding e-learning into the curriculum, assessment, pedagogic practice and leadership

* Enhancing practice for learners, teachers, leaders and the professional school support community

* Mainstreaming ICT into educational priorities

* Professional development

* Evaluating the effectiveness of integration, and the educational benefits

* Co-ordinating regional strategic action

* Creating a unified elearning strategy

Links etstrategyetstratindex.htm

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