Serious about revolutionising classrooms

Merlin John, Computers Update Editor

A couple of years ago, in the early days of US Netday, the movement that campaigns to get US schools connected to the Internet, President Bill Clinton and Vice-President Al Gore turned up for a picture opportunity by going into a school in California, rolling up their sleeves and helping teachers, students, parents and volunteers to lay cable and create a computer network. At that time, it was virtually impossible to imagine a British politician doing the same. All that has now changed, and Tony Blair and John Prescott are credible candidates.

Obstacles to Britain's "education superhighway" are about to be dislodged. This week the telephony watchdog Oftel approved BT's offer to schools of fixed-rate high-capacity connections (ISDN), and the Government launched its consultation document on proposals for the National Grid for Learning. Next month should see the launch of Britain's version of the US' Netday which will probably be called NetYear 98.

For the first time in years there's a buzz in educational information and communications technology (ICT), a recognition that the Government is serious about its grand-sounding projects. We now have politicians who actually want to build something substantial rather than headline-catching pilot projects. A strategy is being created to target the problems, particularly teacher training (see page 23). Let's hope that the penny has finally dropped - that teachers are the key to successful ICT and it makes more sense supporting them than inventing quicker ways to sack them.

Flesh is now being put on the bones of Labour's bold intentions to transform education within five years. Plans are being made to turn the National Grid for Learning from an appealing slogan into a national resource to nourish the concept of lifelong learning. Great claims have always been made for technology. But global networks are already changing the work of those fortunates who have access.

For the most part, technological problems appear to have been solved, leaving education with the most important question: what do we want to do with it? Some of the answers are already there. The Internet and video-conferencing are no longer novelties for many schools, just everyday tools for learning that can bring fresh motivation and even fresher information to a classroom. And more answers will emerge soon with the report on the Education Department's Superhighways Initiative. So by the time of the annual BETT educational technology show in January, a place where government initiatives are usually launched, there should be an extremely positive atmosphere.

Most governments now recognise that technology has to be built into national policy for a successful society and economy. This technological and media revolution is under way, whether we want it or not. Many schools and homes already connected to the Internet didn't wait for a government green light before going on-line. They have seen and experienced the advantages for themselves.

Many families are considering whether this Christmas will be the time to treat themselves to a computer. (Yes, it's only three months away). If the home ownership trend continues (see pages 16 to 22), Britain will have one of the highest proportions of home ownership of computers in the world, and this is likely to affect the relationship between home and school. Exactly how this will happen is still a matter for conjecture, some of it fanciful. What is clear, however, is that for many children the home is already better equipped for learning than the school they attend.

We now have technology that can support anywhere, anytime learning, and a government that has a Minister for Life-Long Learning. So long as the civil servants can keep the pace required by their ministers we are entering a significant period of change and renewal. Perhaps the most encouraging feature of all is the strong influence of No 10. Hopefully this will keep everyone on course.

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