The recent launch of the Scottish Schools Digital Network (SSDN) marks the latest phase in the privatisation or so-called "managed services" approach to schools' information technology. Given the corporate and political interests involved, some fanfare was predictable. For computer giant RM, which won the pound;37 million contract, the network will add nicely to a balance sheet which last year showed pound;10 million profit from sales to UK schools.
For the Scottish Executive, the deal provides a fashionably forward-looking image while apparently offloading some of the risk of the project's failure. But how truly significant for Scottish education is this development? Will the network "transform learning and teaching", as the Education Minister has suggested?
If it works, by the end of 2008 it will provide all Scottish pupils and teachers with fast broadband internet connections, together with a package of software for online chat, web browsing, email and electronic conferencing. For those limping along on narrowband, that should be a useful step forward. But this unfortunate group is already a declining species. In schools where broadband is long established, the SSDN may seem less like a revolution and more like old hat.
Bullish claims for the transformational role of technology simply do not stand up to the evidence. In Scotland and elsewhere, research points to the conclusion that new technology is not in fact a primary driver for widespread classroom change. Its impact is always mitigated by the anchoring structures of curriculum, assessment and school organisation, and by the mediation of teachers whose beliefs about teaching and learning change relatively slowly.
Instead of producing radical new pedagogy, technology tends merely to "streamline" existing practices. It is a likely bet that the network will bring, for example, more PowerPoint presentations, online multiple choice tests and electronic filing of class marks. This is innovation of a kind, but it leaves untouched the underlying patterns of teaching and learning.
Whether pound;37 million is a fair starting price to pay for such limited change is an open question. But even this begs the question of whether the new system will be delivered in a form that is reliable and sustainable.
Large-scale IT projects have a sorry history of failure to meet deadlines, budgets and quality standards. Teachers' complaints about the unreliability of existing systems, and poor technical back-up, are well documented. While it is hardly cutting-edge, the SSDN will add a layer of complexity on to those already fragile systems. The technology industry talks of "solutions", but what the users experience are more often problems.
A significant claim that has been made is that the network will narrow the "digital divide". This is based on the idea that every teacher and pupil from Shetland to Stranraer will connect to the same intranet, access files and applications via the same desktop interface, and enjoy the same opportunities for high-speed communication. What this ignores is that the roots of the digital divide lie not in schools but in homes. The developers have already promised parents that they will be able to access the network from home via the internet. At present, however, only about 55 per cent of UK homes have internet access and huge differences exist between socio-economic classes. Four-fifths of social class AB are internet users compared to less than a third of class DE. For as long as this difference exists, any advantage that comes from home access to SSDN will widen rather than narrow the gap between haves and have-nots.
Beyond the digital divide, the advent of the SSDN raises further issues of power and control. For instance, who exactly will exercise authority over that national desktop? Scotland's education may be governed from Holyrood, but its schools will in future depend on an intranet designed and managed by an English company, and one that bases its technology on American software.
Already many teachers have complained that under the "managed services"
approach to IT they have effectively lost control of their local networks.
A request to make even a minor change can be rebuffed by reference to costs and contracts. If the privatisation of the SSDN means that Scottish education forfeits control over its national intranet that could have serious consequences.
Whether leading SSDN figures, who have been heard to claim that it is "just a tool", have understood much of this seems doubtful. In fact, a computer network is much less like a neutral tool than a committed publication: it is an expression of political power in which some ideas and groups are inevitably privileged over others. An illustration of this was the (now defunct) Scottish Virtual Teachers' Centre, which teachers perceived as reflecting not their opinions and interests but those of education leadership groups, such as HMIE.
As the globally mighty Microsoft has discovered, in the 21st century control of the computer desktop can bring power and influence on a scale that in earlier times might only have been achieved through imperial wars.
When the computers of 800,000 Scottish teachers and pupils are wired to a centrally controlled national intranet, the possibilities for grass-roots collaborations around a progressive agenda are real, but so too is the potential for abuse by a hypothetical authoritarian government of the future.
The SSDN is too important to be left to corporate technocrats. It must be brought under some kind of transparent democratic control, and quickly.
Tom Conlon is a senior lecturer in Moray House School of Education, Edinburgh University. John Connell of the Scottish Schools Digital Network will reply next week.