Inspiration technology" is a slogan used by a computer manufacturer, but it could also be the theme of this year's BETT 2001 educational technology show at Olympia, London, next week. Many visitors will be looking for inspiration when it comes to using information and communications technology (ICT) in schools, homes and the wider community. BETT 2001 marks year three in the government's four-year plan to establish a National Grid for Learning (NGFL), and move ICT from the fringes of the curriculum to the heart of teaching and learning.
The ICT bandwagon is rolling. A Department for Education and Employment (DFEE) survey of 1,000 students aged 7-19 found that over 90 per cent of them used computers in school. A survey by the British Educational Suppliers Association (Besa), sponsored by Microsoft, reported that there were almost one million computers in schools. According to DFEE figures, 98 per cent of secondary and 86 per cent of primary schools are now online. The government plans to spend an additional pound;1 billion over the next three years on new technology in schools, and has asked NM Rothschild to study how the NGFL should be developed and funded over this period. Meanwhile, Scotland is pushing ahead with radical plans for a national high-speed education network.
But all this huge investment comes with a price notes Niel McLean, director of evidence and practice with the British Educational Communications and Technology Agency (Becta): "People are starting to ask hard questions - there has been a lot of money spent on ICT in education." Lord David Puttnam will be presenting Becta's major new teachers' ICT in Practice Awards, sponsored by BT and The TES (see pp40-41). A full report on this scheme, introduced to help spread good practice, will be featured in the February issue of TES Online.
Much of the emphasis on using ICT in schools has been about raising standards, but David Burrows, Microsoft's head of education, says: "We should also be looking at the wider issue of developing the life skills needed for the digital economy." This year's visitors to BETT should have a clearer view on government policy on ICT in schools as the four major agencies responsible for joined-up thinking on ICT - the QCA, TTA, Becta and DFEE - will have stands together in the same Policy in Practice area.
Ray Fleming, RM's secondary school manager, says the boost in ICT investment in education means that BETT's raison d'etre is changing: "The panic over infrastructure is passing and BETT is no longer about simply selling boxes to schools - the focus has moved to content, training and figuring how to transfer policy into the practice. These are the key issues. Visitors should be asking 'What are we supposed to do with it?' and 'How do we get ICT working better?'" Fleming likens the current situation in some schools to putting a brand new, state-of-the-art kitchen into a home and then simply using it to make baked beans on toast.
There is tremendous variation in both the provision and practice of ICT across schools and LEAs. Some schools, like Sawtry Community College in Cambridgeshire, are at the "bleeding edge" of educational technology. The school, which has over 1,000 pupils aged 11-18, has 200 desktop computers, plus 40 laptops which can be used across departments. All 65 full-time staff have their own computers, and the school has a wireless network system.
It also uses the Bromcom electronic registration system and is a Microsoft mentor school, being an original pilot school for Microsoft's Anytime Anywhere learning programme, which uses laptop PCs to connect home and school learning.
Nick Olley, Sawtry's deputy principal, says: "Using ICT takes a lot of hard work, but the benefits are plain to see." If you want to find out how the school makes all of this work, teachers from Sawtry Community College will be on the Microsoft and Bromcom stands.
Niel McLean says that a key issue is sustainability: "BETT is about innovation, but it also needs to answer the question of sustaining the levels of investment - in terms of funding, people and time - needed to sustain a vibrant ICT programme in schools. My worry is that too many schools still have a 'windfall mentality' which assumes that central government will always fund the expansion of ICT in schools - it clearly won't."
Schemes like Tesco's Computers for Schools have helped schools obtain ICT hardware and software, and at BETT, the educational website schoolmaster.com will be unveiling an online "buy and reward" scheme. Parents, teachers, students and parent associations will be able to boost school funding by shopping online and nominating a school to receive a percentage of what they spend. Time Education will be launching the second, improved generation of its Software for Schools promotion, working with the Daily Telegraph on a token system to generate free software (and some hardware) for classroom use.
Another key issue is content and the question of who provides it. The public sector? The private sector? Teachers? The Government seems to be looking for a "third way" solution, but when publicly funded organisations like the BBC set out proposals to provide free curriculum content (see p28), it raises the hackles of many commercial software developers who fear unfair competition.
The "C" part of ICT - communication - should not be forgotten, according to Adrian Carey, Edex-CWC's director of educational services: "The Internet is about people working together and planning together. Content can be created by two kids across the world, as well as by commercial companies."
Desktop video will also be a key new feature at BETT 2001. Corporate decisions taken in the US by people who appear to view Europe as a monoglot set of states doesn't do Apple UK any favours, especially if journalists are expected to ring Paris to find out about Apple in UK education.
Despite the difficulty of pinning Apple down, it's clear that the company that gave us desktop publishing is now doing the same for video. And with some of the best designed technology on the planet (HandsOn, p45). Plug a digital video camera into an iMac and you can edit right away and send it back to the camera for copying onto VHS. Try that with any other computer.
Apple is also ahead with easy-to-use wireless networking with its AirPort system - now Macs even have built-in wireless antennae. The success of the iMacs has also encouraged more third-party software, like the new version of Clicker. Then there are the Apple Learning Series, collections of graphics and Web creation software like Flash and Dreamweaver at big discounts.
Around five per cent of secondary schools have now opted for managed services, which involves handing the management of ICT over to the external company. RM says 10 per cent of its secondary schools use its managed services, and the company expects this area to expand over the next few years as ICT networks become more complex.
Training will also have a high profile at BETT. Besa's survey found that less than half of teachers (47 per cent) felt confident about using ICT, compared with the DFEE's average figure of 62 per cent. " Many teachers will be hoping that the DFEE's over-subscribed Computers for Teachers programme will be relaunched this year in a form that doesn't result in administrative procedures like the last one. The Scottish scheme exceeded expectations and ran without a major hitch, while the Northern Ireland scheme provided laptops to teachers at schools.
Some 60 per cent of computers in schools are networked says Besa, and 70 per cent of schools use ISDN digital telephone connections for going online, with 10 per cent of secondary schools using leased lines. Bromcom is rolling out its MyChildAtSchool.com online service at BETT, which allows parents to access a school's administration network to gain information on their child's progress, attendance and behaviour.
The word "broadband" is on the lips of many educational Internet service providers and creators of online services - these faster connections promise to transform the way schools use the Internet. At BETT, Time Education will be unveiling a new high-speed Internet service which uses ADSL digital phone lines. Time says it will offer schools a 24-hour, 365-day Internet connection for a flat-rate monthly fee which the company says will be "highly attractive". DialNet, now acquired by the telecoms company Redstone, is planning to launch an ADSL service in the summer when the "local loop" (the connection between home or school and the local exchange) is opened up to BT's competitors.
Becta will be unveiling its revamped Virtual Teachers Centre (http:vtc.ngfl.gov.uk), which Dave Hassell, Becta's head of curriculum innovation and development, says will be more dynamic and have strong links with other websites such as the QCA site and Teachernet. Visitors to the new VTC will also find a greatly improved search engine and have the opportunity to receive information that has been customised to their needs.
Some will be hoping that this year's BETT will also generate a cultural change in education. As Adrian Carey puts it: "We need to get rid of the baggage of the past." Steve Bacon, of NAACE, says: "We are going on a journey, but we need to know where we're going and accept that there may have to be some radical re-thinking. If ICT is to make the impact we all hope it will have on schools and schooling, teachers and teaching, and learners and learning, we can't simply bolt it on to our existing structures."
George Cole is a freelance journalist and a former teacher
Apple: Stand E34F34
Tel: 0208 2181000
Becta: Stand C30
Tel: 024 76411418
Besa: Stand L35
Tel: 0207 5374846
Bromcom: Stand C20
Tel: 0208 6958099
DFEE: Stand X60
Tel: 0207 2735124
DIALNet: Stand B82
Tel: 0121 6245050
Microsoft: Stand D30
Tel: 0870 6020100
QCA: Stand Y60
Tel: 01845 567704
RM: Stand D50, E50, TC9 and TC10
Tel: 01235 826000
TTA: Stand Y40
Tel: 0207 9253799
Time Education: Stand C60
Tel: 01282 777799