A safety Net for parents

They call it Pester Power - children's unfailing ability to grind down their parents' resistance to spending money on items they thought they would never want. Like computers. This is the time of year when technology companies enlist Pester Power as they start to saturate our television screens with beguiling advertisements - for computers with educational software for the home or, now, for digital television. Tabloid newspapers are already heavy with adverts for computer add-ons such as printers, digital cameras and the latest high street headliner, DVD-Rom (see page 10), which promises much for computer users.

The pressure to buy has been mirrored by the Government, which recently announced new funding for its National Grid for Learning, bringing spending to Pounds 1 billion by the year 2002.

The push to develop and regulate materials for the Grid also increases the appeal for connecting homes. In fact, home users are one of the targets identified in the 'Connecting the Learning Society' report, which laid the groundwork for the Grid.

Hi-tech equipment is now top of the Christmas list for many homes, even those with little money. Never mind that computers are still relatively expensive or complicated, or that all the children's talk about homework turns to games by Boxing Day. For many children, computers are a must-have, and even parents, unconvinced of their value for personal use, now accept that computers are essential to their children's education. So the road to refusal is lined with guilt.

Many teachers are already aware of all this. Those who are not had better wise up, because research by the British Educational Suppliers Association (BESA) and Microsoft reveals that parents think their first port of call for advice about educational technology is the school (followed by shops, publications and other parents). If that is not enough motivation, they should try this: "By 2002, general administrative communications to schools by the UK education departments, Ofsted (the Office for Standards in Education) and other public bodies, and the collection of data from schools, should cease to be paper-based." That's a throwaway line in a Grid briefing document from the British Educational Communications and Technology Agency (BECTA). The BESAMicrosoft survey reveals that league tables, national test materials and revision aids have stimulated parent spending. It also warns that "the market for true educational products is in its infancy", and that "educational" software tends to be either encyclopedias or edutainment and is selected by children rather than parents.

Fortunately, there are independent sources of advice - such as the Parents Information Network (PIN) and Teachers Evaluating Educational Multimedia, as well as 'ComputerActive', the consumer magazine. Some manufacturers and suppliers also produce relatively objective advice publications. But more is needed.

The former National Council for Educational Technology provided pages of advice and contacts on its website, an online service continued by its successor, BECTA. Now emerging from restructuring into its role as the Grid's keeper for the Government, BECTA has more pressing immediate priorities. However, as more computers go into homes, its unique position means it will have to support parents to ensure that homes connect to the learning grid. The early signs are good - BECTA is sponsoring PIN to produce a book on parents and the Internet.

As the Grid develops and more online material to support home learning becomes available, a home Internet connection will be even more valuable, helping to make lifelong learning a reality rather than an attractive concept. Meanwhile, Pester Power will exert its pull on the purse strings until that promised day when we can't afford not to be Netted.




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