Spark that could set online learning ablaze

Gillian Macdonald reports on plans for the new national education intranet

Plans for Scotland's national schools intranet are moving fast, with all schools expected to have access to most of it by August 2004. The network has been christened Spark and the name will be announced at the SETT show.

The Scottish Executive has held talks with UKERNA, the body which maintains SuperJanet4, the UK universities' network, about providing broadband "interconnects" to all the education authorities. UKERNA would take broadband capacity to the door of each authority and it would be up to them to connect to it.

"All 32 authorities have agreed," says John Connell, project manager for the Scottish Schools Digital Network.

Funding is in place for the interconnections and the intranet. Discussions are taking place within the Executive to find further funding to put broadband links between schools within the authorities.

Talks with the education authorities are taking place to establish what material will go on the intranet and virtual learning environment and what they will have to do to take advantage of it.

The intranet will be rolled out in phases, but Mr Connell hopes that by August 2004 schools will have access to most of it. The system is expected to be modularised, so that authorities can buy whichever aspects they want.

"A few authorities already have good intranets," says Mr Connell, "such as Glasgow, East Renfrewshire, North Lanarkshire and Edinburgh. They could link from their own to the national intranet.

"Some will want to use it as their sole intranet."

There will be three main components to Spark. There will be everything a corporate intranet can offer: e-mail facilities, Internet access and communication tools for conferencing, allowing teachers and learners to interconnect. So a teacher could set work and a child could hand it in via e-mail.

There will be the Internet service provider, giving access to the Internet and e-mail. "Some education authorities are very happy with the ISP they've got, but a sizeable minority are having trouble with ISPs," says Mr Connell.

Also there will be the basic tools for a virtual learning environment. These could include off-the-shelf packages such as Digital Brain, which offer curriculum materials teachers can customise.

"A good learning environment would enable authorities to offer pupils and teachers tools to browse for information and put it together, to create presentations, modules or courses and demonstrate them via whiteboards or computers," says Mr Connell. "Pupils could be given controlled access to curriculum materials and their activity and achievements could be monitored."

Social work units or community libraries could also operate on the same intranet if they are part of the local education service, but there are no plans at the moment for it to become multi-agency.

"Once it's in place, it could almost happen automatically," says Mr Connell. "Most of the need for cross-referencing data with social work, etc, would be within the authority."

The Executive has also been in talks with the Scottish Council of Independent Schools to see how they could connect to the infrastructure. "Maybe Edinburgh schools or Glasgow schools could join together and others independently," says Mr Connell. "We're looking at the economics of providing it to individual schools."

It is envisaged that students, parents and teachers will get external access to as many of Spark's core services as possible. Every pupil and teacher will have their own personalised home page, which they would access using their own password. This would give them controlled access according to their needs.

Icons on the computer desktop could include school management systems such as SEEMIS or Phoenix, local authority services, including local curriculum materials, the SCHOLAR programme of online Higher courses led by Heriot Watt University, the Scottish Cultural Resources Access Network, Learning and Teaching Scotland and the BBC. LT Scotland is in the process of procuring about 35 programs for the Scottish curriculum, some produced by itself, others in partnership. These will be put on to the system over the next few years.

A portal or sub-portal might also be built to provide access to commercial online suppliers, says Mr Connell. The new London Grid for Learning, for example, uses Espresso. Schools would need funding to buy contents online, either using a smartcard or through their authority.

Online communities would also be there, such as Masterclass, for teachers, and Heads Together, for headteachers (see page VII). Other forums are expected to evolve.

"Once the intranet is there, we're hoping Masterclass and other national training initiatives in ICT will have a vehicle to deliver training and authorities will provide training locally," says Mr Connell. The intranet will also link into the Scottish Exchange of Educational Data, ScotXed, which will facilitate the simple transfer of data between the Scottish Executive, HM Inspectorate of Education and the Scottish Qualifications Authority.

"If this works," says Mr Connell, "within a couple of years we will have a national intranet. That is very unlikely ever to happen in England or anywhere. In Canada some provinces are trying to deliver something similar and are a bit ahead of us in terms of infrastructure. Scotland is small enough to do it but has a big enough population to give the critical mass to make it work."

John Connell will talk on Scotland's National Schools Intranet: Teacher's Little Helper at 4.15pm, September 25 and 12.15pm, Sept 26Robert Skey will talk on Scotland's National Schools Intranet: A Schools-Based Online Community, 10am, Sept 25 and 3.15pm, Sept 26Digital Brain, www.digitalbrain.comLondon Grid for Learning,

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