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New town talk

All of Milton Keynes's secondaries are now connected to a network which needs little more than the most basic technology. Chris Abbott reports

Milton Keynes is an IT-aware community, with the Open University and its Institute of Educational Technology forming a central focus for much of what is happening in education.

But a local communications project has shown that schools can achieve much using basic e-mail, and old machines that would stutter to a halt faced by the intensive graphics of the World Wide Web. OU researcher Peter Davis set up the project using basic technology. His enthusiasm followed a visit to the US where he was impressed by similar projects.

Development of the Milton Keynes Community Network - set up in 1994 with support from the OU - has been rapid. By the end of last year all the town's five secondary schools were connected, with four mailboxes for teachers at each school and one for students. Some local middle schools have also become involved.

Peter Davis has arranged several projects, including one linking students and scientists. One of the first scientists to take part, an eminent astronomer, was stunned by his initial question which came from a 10-year-old: could a black hole function as a time machine? His eventual answer - given in a few paragraphs and in appropriate language - was read not just by the questioner but by other scientists. An active debate followed, all prompted by that 10-year-old's question.

Many of the Community Network projects have involved linking with industry and commerce. The local work experience agency, Trident, has used it to build its placements which cover 2,500 students going to 600 companies. GNVQs and the Education-Business Partnership make it likely that this will be a major part of the project's future work.

Peter Davis identifies particular advantages for schoolindustry co-operation via an electronic network. "It's difficult to phone schools; everyone tries to get through at break-time. An e-mail network improves the messaging options and means everyone can deal with messages at a time that suits them. The emphasis throughout the project is on talking locally rather than globally."

Some schools have developed their use of the network beyond the original plans. Denbigh School, for example, now has its own server and every student has his or her individual mailbox.

On the industry side, one of the first groups to become involved was the Milton Keynes Borough Council's Department of Health. It often gets letters from schools involved in studying health topics, which can now be answered on-line and then archived. The next school studying the same topic can check the archive and only send a new question if it has not been asked before, or if extra information is needed.

The City Discovery Centre is involved, as is the local library service, the Chamber of Commerce, and the Milton Keynes Research Forum which involves 25 local organisations, many of them involved in supporting local people with disabilities.

The network has also built links with a similar local network in Las Vegas - recent exchanges about whether British police should be armed were answered by officers from the city in Nevada.

Tony Littlejohn at Eaton Mill School, Bletchley, has used an array of almost prehistoric computers to run a variety of communication projects since 1992.

His pupils have measured shadows and collected data from schools around the world doing similar experiments, allowing them to compare the lengths of the shadow and geographical position. They have exchanged video film with a school in Massachusetts, built elastic-band tanks and grown mould in experiments duplicated by partner schools around the world.

Not all projects have been involved with the collection of data; a recent link with a school in Tampa, Florida, led to a "book battle" with 18 American schools in which three pupils from each school took part in an electronic quiz based on the same books. Eaton Mill won.

Peter Davis

Tony Littlejohn 1

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