Despite the pessimism that has engulfed some information and communications technology organisations in education in recent months, there has been at least one thing to take a little heart from: quite a bit of progress has been made towards connecting Britain's 32,000 schools to the National Grid for Learning by 2002.
Much work is still to be done if the Government's ambitious plan, launched a year ago, is to reach its target as there are a number of basic issues yet to be resolved.
The latest good news for schools considering going online is that one of the leading cable companies, Cable Wireless, is competing head to head with BT to provide a national Internet connection offer for schools next month . This seems certain to increase competition among Internet providers and should, in turn, drive costs down for the education world.
Cable companies have previously offered connections only to schools in their own geographical areas, but CW's School Surfer deal offers high-capacity connection (ISDN) to any British school for Pounds 600. That is Pounds 190 cheaper than the comparable service offered by BT, which agreed a deal with Tony Blair to connect schools (the Government relaxed the telecommunications rules for BT in return for it offering schools free connections to a high-capacity network).
Where it has to deliver the service on BT's lines, CW conforms to BT's curious 8am-to-6pm schoolday limitations. However, those schools within a CW area can have the service for 24 hours, 365 days a year. This makes BT's restrictions - which could stymie plans by schools to use their technology for homework clubs or training for parents, for example - appear niggardly by comparison. And many people in education now view the BlairBT deal as too one-sided.
A rival network supplier, Adrian Carey, of Edex, says of the limitations of BT's offer: "It flies in the face of community involvement. If the Grid is to take off, it needs to get the community on board as well." Carey points out that Internet providers also have to pay an additional charge in these hours: "The charge is small, but if you have thousands of customers, it could mount up. You could see two-tier charging as a result."
The head of marketing for BT education and training, Andy Crawford, replies: "Not all schools are using the Internet 10 hours a day. We've had no complaints about the hours on offer." But he acknowledges that charges may still be too high for some primaries: "We are talking with Oftel (the telecoms regulator) about enhancing the product."
The main focus of the CW offer, however, is working with local authorities to centralise network resources. So the authority would become the focal point for a secure, high-capacity network embracing schools and local community.
Until now, two things have helped drive more and more schools on to the Internet: BT's Schools Internet Caller (SIC) service, and the Pounds 100 million Standards Fund, which local authorities are using to get their schools connected. The BT deal offers unlimited Internet use during designated school hours for a fixed annual fee (Pounds 790 for an ISDN digital telephone line, or Pounds 445 for a standard telephone connection), allowing teachers to budget for their call charges.
Finding out how many schools are connected to the Internet is not easy, and it's almost impossible to discover the type of connection they have. Some schools use a dial-up connection which has a single computer hooked up to a modem. But more and more are opting for a faster ISDN line, linked to a computer network. Some schools have even opted for cable connections or broadband (high-speed) leased lines.
The Department for Education and Employment plans to publish a new ICT survey of schools in England before Christmas, while the Welsh Office has no figures available. In Scotland, about one third of the 2,313 primary schools have an Internet connection and 10 per cent have their own Web pages. About 90 per cent of Scottish secondaries are connected and about half have Web pages too.
orthern Ireland has an ambitious scheme to have all of its 1,300 schools connected by Easter next year, under a programme developed by the Strategic Group for Educational Technology (SGET). The Pounds 6 million programme also covers teacher training, curriculum materials and a website called Nine (Northern Ireland Network for Education).
BT says that, since it launched Schools Internet Caller last April, 4,500 (or 16 per cent) of schools have taken up the offer. Tim Clark, RM's Internet marketing manager, says the move to get schools online has been "a raging success".
"We now have 1,000 schools with network connections to the Internet and orders for another 1,000, and we are only half way through the tendering for England and Scotland," he says.
John O'Farrell, SchoolNet's training manager for Pavilion Internet, says demand has been "escalating rapidly. We now have 60 schools on networked ISDN whereas, 18 months ago, it was an effort to get people thinking about why they should be connected."
But others are reporting a slower uptake. Adrian Carey of Edex says there has been "a trickle of schools picking up ISDN from the BT deal, but others are waiting for LEA tenders to go out". While areas such as Staffordshire are pressing ahead with getting their schools wired up, others are taking their time.
Mike Smith, professional officer for NAACE, the computer advisers' association, says schools must be patient: "LEAs are working extremely hard, although there may appear to be slow progress. This is the first year of a four-year programme and the problem is that if you get things wrong now, you'll have to live with the consequences for a long time."
Some local authorities have divided their areas into four and are focusing on one district per year. Others are getting the infrastructure in place before embarking on a roll-out of schools. "We think the latter is the best way of doing things, especially as content on the Grid is scarce at present," says Smith.
But will the Grid be fast enough? Some, like Adrian Carey, describe ISDN as a "cul-de-sac". "If schools want to do multimedia and video-conferencing on the Net, they will find that ISDN is not fast enough. They need a broadband, leased line." But BT's Andy Crawford disagrees: "For most schools, ISDN is fast enough."
Mark East, Microsoft's education group manager, says: "Teacher training is the number one issue for most schools." A Microsoft survey of 800 primary and secondary schools carried out this summer found that there was demand for training for non-ICT staff from over 90 per cent of schools. Last summer, an ICT training programme run by the Scottish Council for Educational Technology (SCET) was over-subscribed. Phil Strange, SCET's business development manager, also describes training as the "number one priority for many schools".
The debate over the Grid is changing, says Strange: "It's no longer a question of 'How do I get online?', but 'What do I do when I am?'" Everyone agrees that the Grid will stand or fall by the content it offers. The Virtual Teachers' Centre, designed to be at the heart of the Grid and managed by the British Educational Communications and Technology Agency, will have more content in early 1999, says Andre Wagstaff, BECTA's Grid liaison manager. "A Challenge Document will be launched this autumn, encouraging schools to add content to the centre and to the rest of the Grid."
The Teacher Grid UK site, developed by BT, Microsoft and RM, has been revamped and now has links with the Virtual Teachers' Centre. This summer, it held a live online question and answer session featuring Owen Lynch, chief executive of BECTA.
This month, UK Netyear was running a series of Internet activities featuring celebrities such as John Humphreys, Adrian Moorhouse and experts from various organisations, including the Globe Theatre. "It was a way of showing teachers how the Internet can be a useful resource," says Claire Lilley, UK Netyear's communications manager.
"The foundations for the Grid are clearly being put into place, but now these need to be built upon with good content, training and closer links between schools and the wider community."
UK Netdays, page 42