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Prescription for a healthy system;Miscellany

Microsoft has long been promoting the concept of a digital nervous system. And its supremo, Bill Gates, in Business @ the Speed of Thought, takes just over 400 pages to detail the system's potential in developing a business. This may seem no great shakes to teachers - certainly Gates's ideas are targeted towards a business readership - but since the book focuses on knowledge-based businesses there are important messages for education throughout.

The importance of knowledge and knowledge workers is Gates's recurring theme. He explains how knowledge-based organisations in the commercial and industrial sectors can boost efficiency by using IT to increase the flow of information. Companies that have moved to the Web from paper-driven activity, which largely involves completing forms, have saved millions of dollars, he claims. The key to such success lies in ensuring easy access to information for those who need it. For example, a customer wishing to place an order should be able to do so via the company website. This would have the knock-on benefit of releasing staff in the order department for more productive activities.

Transferring this idea to education, a digital nervous system in school could be used to free teachers from the task of transmitting information. Indeed, some pioneers may point to this as the breakthrough schools need to develop a more pupil-centred approach that makes the best use of IT for learning.

The book's message is also in line with government plans to make more information for schools accessible on the World Wide Web.

Another theme Gates explores is that organisations with an effective digital nervous system can react quickly to change. There are important lessons here for an education system that needs to respond to a flood of new initiatives and technological opportunities.

One chapter directly addresses education. And while the content of "Create Connected Learning Communities" is largely well-known material, a summary of "business lessons" and points for "diagnosing your digital nervous system" at the chapter's end will prove useful for many teachers.

In my view, however, the value of this book is in the other 22 chapters. Gates does have a tendency to hype up his subject - something to be expected from an author whose future depends on the use of IT systems - but he has valuable lessons that explain how all organisations can gain from IT. Education-oriented readers who can translate his business examples into a school environment will find a wealth of useful material. It is definitely worth a read.

Les Watson

Business @ the Speed of Thought, by Bill Gates; Penguin; pound;18.99.

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