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Learning platform choice worries

Lack of school control could threaten success of major ICT initiative, writes Jack Kenny

The Government's plan to ensure that every learner should be offered a personal online space on school "learning platforms" by 2008 is hitting problems. The lack of clarity over funding has meant that many headteachers accustomed to managing their own schools are finding that, in this crucial area of learning, the funding (around pound;40 million) and the responsibility is shifting to LEAs and the regional broadband consortia (RBC).

RBC's are already organising roadshows even though the specifications for learning platforms being developed by government ICT agency Becta has not yet been published. Schools that have already bought into learning platforms have been angered by suggestions that they abandon their developments and then wait while some RBCs spend their money developing their own learning platform.

Norman Crawford, adviser for Tameside, developed a learning platform for local schools two years ago. Crawford is concerned that the Department for Education and Skills (DfES) initiative is being seen as a technological development whereas it is a development in learning. "It does mean that schools have to change their culture," he said. "A learning platform has to be adopted by all staff in a school. Teachers are no longer the gatekeepers on the pathway to learning. We are expecting massive changes in the role of teachers and not everyone is prepared to do that. Make no mistake, a learning platform changes everything."

The greatest concern from suppliers is that this initiative should be about learning, and not technology. Geoff Elwood (below left) is the managing director of Etech, the Australian company behind Studywiz, the learning platform adopted by Apple Computer and which is supporting the innovative iPodagogy project in Edinburgh (see news, TESOnline, January 6). He warned:

"The concept of RBCs and LEAs dictating to schools which learning platform they should adopt does not make any sense. Becta's own publication on learning platforms states that 'because these changes go to the heart of teaching practice, the implementation of a learning platform must be tailored to the needs of each individual school'. A centralised buy decision made by the RBC or LEA on behalf schools without their direct involvement or consultation runs the risk of resulting in grand-scale white elephant systems that fail to gain even minimal teacher-pupil take-up and, most importantly, miss the opportunity to make a real difference to learning outcomes for students."

Alan Wood (below right) of UniServity, another learning platform company, also echoed the concerns of many when he said that providers and their school users should be consulted in the framework. While he applauds the initiative, he would like to think that the RBCs will not limit the number of providers allowed to present to schools at their roadshows, as this wouldn't be in the best interests of schools and learning. "There needs to be a framework or guidance for learning processes and outcomes, and it is the wealth of schools already demonstrating best practice that are best placed to provide this," said Wood. "These schools and their learning platform providers have the breadth of experience to provide a vision of what learning should look like."In the near future, Becta will present a set of technical requirements for learning platform software and systems to be used in schools in England. The documents widely leaked are already being criticised as being over prescriptive.

* More on learning platforms p10-17

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