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Free-for-all or cheap for all?;Editorial;Opinion

Technology has its very own allure. Parents now expect to see skip-loads of computers in schools, even if they could not begin to explain how the machines can help pupils learn - other than repeat the sad mantra: "It prepares them for the world of work."

Over the years, hard-headed educationists have regularly tried to wrong-foot runaway technologists with a gentle question: "Yes, but what are the learning gains?" So it's encouraging to come across a high-profile, high-tech school happily notching up those gains - Monkseaton Community High School in the North-east (see page 14).

Monkseaton's success helps motivate other schools into the Internet age. And it reassures politicians that funding is well-spent. So it was fitting that Monkseaton was picked for a video-conference with David Blunkett, the Secretary of State for Education, at the opening of the BETT educational technology show in London in January. The show is a useful thermometer of what is happening in the country. In 1997 it was uninspiring; this year it was the very opposite. The organisers, EMAP, reported growth of 35 per cent, which means that government action on information and communications technology (ICT) is having the desired effect.

Few people now question this Government's motivation and commitment. Attention is focused on the triggers required for successful ICT in schools (identified by the independent Stevenson Report, commissioned while in opposition by Tony Blair). The Teacher Training Agency, for example, has just released its consultation document for the ICT curriculum for teachers (the real challenge, one suspects, is whether the required resources will appear in time). Neither is there any question that most schools genuinely want to connections.

For better or worse the National Grid for Learning is already under construction. The British Educational and Communications Technology Agency (BECTA) is showing the sort of leadership it was discouraged from doing in its former guise as the NCET (National Council for Educational Technology). It had no other choice. Internet "market forces" dictate that if its Virtual Teacher Centre is not the richest and most interesting source of support for teachers in Britain, they will go elsewhere (see page 19).

One of the agency's biggest challenges will be to harness the enormous goodwill of the traditional content suppliers to education to form new working relationships. The TES has already stepped out on to the learning grid (see pages 4-5) by making all its printed resources - articles and teaching jobs (the advertisements go on in early summer) - available on the Web free of charge. The television companies are also moving quickly: the BBC is leading the way with massive investment in innovative websites that are already being used for classroom activities.

Much about the emerging grid has yet to be revealed, however; there is already concern that the prospect of fixed costs for schools and the network's physical construction - ie, the need to beef up capacity significantly- are weak links that need attention. If the fears of some Internet providers come true - that the costs of new, high-capacity lines will be passed on to schools (see page 10) - then schools will view it as a discouragement.

A similar confusion hovers threateningly around UK NetYear. Thisindependent move to connect British schools deserves support. At its launch, it offered free e-mail addresses for life for pupils and teachers, yet last month BT (which didn't join UK NetYear) offered virtually the same thing to the entire nation as a millennium initiative. Should leading companies be viewing learning grid initiatives as a free-for-all?

It is clear that we are still some way from the vision of online schools promoted by Tony Blair before the election. And the technology doesn't stand still. Could you have imagined a school getting its Internet feed from its electricity supply? (See page 18.) But a quick rethink on national telecoms policy at a sufficiently high level (and there are forces inside the Government already advocating this) could remove obstacles to the promised education super-highway. Mix-and-match toll-waysdon't have quite the same appeal.

* Don't forget...

If you only go to one conference this term, you won't be disappointed by "Learning, Quality and the Information Age" at Homerton College, Cambridge, on March 30-31. Britain's leading ICT practitioners - among them Owen Lynch, the boss of the organisation building the online Virtual Teacher Centre, - will deliver what promises to be a fascinating series of talks and seminars.

Details from Betty Burling, IT Unit, Homerton College, Cambridge CB2 2PH. Tel: 01223 507161

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