National grid is a virtual reality

The challenge to teachers has been thrown down: here is what could be the most advanced educational computer network in the world - now use it.

As the Government unveiled the elements which will form its ambitious National Grid for Learning, teachers were urged by a leading technology adviser to seize the opportunity.

Owen Lynch, acting chief executive of the National Council for Educational Technology, called it "a creative opportunity for educationists," saying: "I would be disappointed if people don't take full advantage."

This week the Government put long-awaited flesh on the bones of its pledge to put schools at the forefront of the information revolution: a national grid for learning, money for new equipment, more money for teacher training, cheap Internet access, and a new partnership with the private sector to deliver the whole package.

The grid should be in place from September 1998, after a consultation period which runs up to December 8 followed by a trial in the new year.

The Government has heeded the warnings of Dennis Stevenson, the chairman of the Pearson Group. Mr Stevenson was asked by Tony Blair two years before the election to report on the potential of information and communications technology (ICT) in education. He warned that training and the use to which it was put would be the key.

The Government's consultation paper, Connecting the Learning Society, says that by 2002 - the end of Labour's first term in office - all schools,colleges, universities and libraries, and as many community centres as possible, should be linked to the grid. Currently only around 6,000 of Britain's 32,000 schools have Internet access.

Up to three-quarters of staff and half of all pupils and students should have e-mail addresses by the same date.

Money from the National Lottery will be used to offer all 500,000 of Britain's teachers the chance of computer training or retraining, also by 2002. Technology will be a mandatory part of initial teacher training by 1999, and all teaching students will need to be "ICT-literate" to qualify.

"Most" school-leavers should have a good grasp of technology and the grid should make the UK an international centre of excellence and a "world leader in the export of learning services", also by 2002, the paper says.

Dr Kim Howells, minister for lifelong learning, said every aspect of the strategy would be judged on the ability to improve pupils' attainment - with particular emphasis on literacy and numeracy.

The Government's New Deal for Schools will provide #163;100 million to upgrade obsolete classroom equipment. Around half of all schools are thought to rely on outdated technology - in the fast-moving world of computers that means computers around five years and older.

The national grid will be a mini-Internet dedicated to education. As an example of the kind of partnerships the Government expects schools and local authorities to pursue, it looks set to be developed by the Department for Education and Employment in collaboration with the private sector.

Hence this week's the visit to Downing Street by one of the world's richest men, Bill Gates, founder of Microsoft. His company could extend its domination of the computer market into the classroom by helping design the grid's software.

"I believe Microsoft will see us as a very good testbed," Mr Stevenson said, suggesting the US education system was too fragmented to do so. "That will benefit the UK."

Educational content will be provided by, among others, the Oxford-bas ed Research Machines, and the whole service is likely to be delivered to schools by BT and the cable companies. Another piece of the jigsaw fell into place as the telecoms watchdog approved BT's offer of cheap Internet access for schools.

BT can now offer schools free connection via a high-speed digital line, and unlimited use from 8am to 6pm on schooldays for a minimum price of just under #163;790 a year plus the cost of an Internet service provider. This is more expensive than cable's #163;1 per pupil, but BT's network is more widespread.

Details are hazy when it comes to the content of the national grid. The consultation paper suggests teachers will be able to access on-line versions of the various curricula, government documents, bulletin boards, and OFSTED reports. There will also be information for parents on their child's school, and links to Government websites.

A "virtual teachers' centre" is proposed, focusing on teachers' professional development.

If all that does not sound inspiring, NCET's Owen Lynch suggested the point was being missed. As well as faster, cheaper communications and access to information, the national grid also provided teachers with potential "creative opportunities". They will play a part in moulding the grid.

"You can't expect the Government to solve all the problems at once. It is providing a framework within a national strategy, which is an enormous achievement," he said.

The grid should also provide good practice and guidance for teachers who purchase equipment and software. That will complement UK NetYear, a publicprivate partnership to be launched next month which aims to help schools connect to the Net.

Support will be vital to the successful harnessing of technology, the unions say. John Bangs of the National Union of Teachers said whatever help was available on the Net, teachers desperately needed good, local advice.

"It is our view that LEAs must provide authority-wide advisers - people who understand ICT and the needs of schools," he said.

Despite the scope of the Government's announcement, ministers are running to keep pace with events in the field, as alliances spring up across the country between schools, local authorities, universities, cable companies and others.

As if to make the point, Tuesday saw Tony Blair and Bill Gates upstaged - in Bradford, at least - by the announcement of ambitious plans to link up that city's 300 schools, in a partnership between Bradford Council, BT, Yorkshire Cable and Research Machines.

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