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Return of the frontier spirit

The Internet is littered with stories about the exploits of schools in the + United States during NetDays, the US's voluntary movement to connect schools to+ each other and the world. Ralston Middle School, in Belmont, California, is + typical. Its Net page describes the hectic day last September when the + technology task force, made up of staff, parents and pupils, began to work out + details for creating a local area network that would connect to a bigger + network of schools over a wider area. The sense of community fostered was one + of the project's most attractive aspects. The people of Ralston worked together+ to install equipment and put their schools on the Internet - a flowering of + the pioneer spirit, inspired by a new frontier: cyberspace.In Britain, instead + of NetDays 1998 has been designated UK NetYear. David Wimpress, of ICL + Education and Consultancy, who is heading the project, says: "The mission of UK+ NetYear is to assist schools to acquire and use modern information technology + to support the Government's vision of the national grid for learning. There are+ obstacles in the way of the grid becoming a reality, some financial and some + technological. We are going to confront as many of those issues as possible. + There are 450,000 teachers who trained when ICT was not part of the + curriculum."NetYear's budget is underpinned by its founders: ICL, Cisco, Sun + Microsystems and The Daily Telegraph. Several other companies are taking part + as sponsors, including Xemplar and RM. Strangely enough, Britain's biggest + telecoms company, BT, has declined to take part, saying that it already + sponsors many education projects.Brendan O'Sullivan, the managing director of + Xemplar, says the initiative accords with government thinking. "It is a good + kick-start for the national grid for learning. We are delighted to be involved + with the steering group. The time is right, and it gives the network a greater + chance of becoming a reality."Mr Wimpress anticipates that it will be 18 months+ before the learning grid gets going. "If nothing happens between now and then + we will be confronted by disoriented and resistant teachers. With Net-Year, + hopefully,we will have a cadre of teachers who will have learnt the + fundamentals of technology about the Inter-net, about how to use it as a + learning re-source. They will understand how to control material that comes + into the school. We hope, as well, to raise about #163;10 million for schools + with particular problems.The British Educational Suppliers Association (BESA), + the organisation that represents most of the companies that supply schools with+ hardware and software, is the "honest broker" for UK NetYear. It has provided + a comprehensive buyer's guide for schools, listing members' products and + services available to schools at cut prices. More than that, it explains the + technologies in layman's terms and explains how schools can formulate + strategies for information and communicat ions technology (ICT) and go about + organising volunteers and sponsors in their local communities.Initially, + schools will be invited to register their interest in NetYear. They will then + receive a guide on how to create an ICT policy and how to take it further. In + addition, there will be a CD-Rom with the first of two training programmes: + 33,000 will be sent at no cost to schools. The second wave of training will + come from the BBC in a version of its programme Computers Don't Bite. Schools + can also register at the official UK NetYear Web site; they will then be sent + the CD-Rom and the BESA buyer's guide. UK NetYear aims to point assistance and + sponsorship in the direction of schools ready either to take their first step + on the ICT ladder or to develop more sophisticated applications. "Never have so+ many influential players in the educational market come to-gether offering + consensus advice and competitive products," says the British Educationa l + Suppliers Association's chief executive, Dominic Savage.One danger is that + schools could feel patronised by people from industry. Some schools already + have a better understanding of ICT than many in industry, but on the other hand+ there are sectors of business where ICT use is highly developed, particularly+ in administration - schools could learn from that.Another danger is the + confusion that comes from a lack of understanding about the role of ICT in + enhancing learning: the ability to use Microsoft Office does not mean that it + will help a teacher in the classroom. But the most serious danger is that + business rivals might fail to bury their mutual suspicion for the greater good + of schools. Mr Wimpress says: "Everyone taking part has a social conscience. + The grid will be a vital part of the future of this country. Enlightened + self-interest is the best way to describe our motives. We will not make any + serious money out of UK NetYear. If our work is not done, the national grid for+ learning will be a year or 18 months slower. "Jack Kenny UK NetYear, Beaumont,+ Old Windsor, Berks SL4 2JP. Fax: 01753 604208.Web site:

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