A schools survey carried out by the British Educational Suppliers Association (BESA) suggests that a milestone will be reached this spring. It forecasts that in April, the number of computers in schools (excluding the old BBCs) will reach one million. It's another sign of the growing importance of information and communications technology (ICT) in schools as we approach the first BETT educational technology show of the new millennium at Olympia, London.
At BETT 2000 it will be hard to avoid the National Grid for Learning (NGFL) and the Internet - so much so that Phil Hemmings, director of corporate affairs with leading schools technology services supplier RM, says: "The Internet is now central to everything." Some would say that if a school is not online, it's off-the-line when it comes to the direction of education and learning. What is clear is that teachers and students without access to online resources, like the NGFL, will be disadvantaged as they will miss out on a number of significant developments being announced at this year's BETT.
Dorling Kindersley now has all of its books on the Internet for free, and RM is launching Window Box Online, a series of Internet resources for primary schools, such as lesson plans and templates which can be downloaded for free. Software publisher Granada Learning is establishing a new trend by making its Letts book content available to network users along with its software.
Educational internet service provider (ISP) DialNet has launched an online education service for schools and LEAs with national curriculum and administration resources, while Compaq's Nonstop Learning Store is an innovative online service offering 12,000 software solutions and IT training courses for teachers.
SIR is launching Eventure, which includes a free website locator that is regularly updated. Companies such as Anglia Multimedia and Granada Learning already have a strong presence on the Web, and Nigel Ward, Granada Learning's managing director, has long argued that online delivery of software and learning resources will become increasingly important. That said, the CD-Rom is not dead and there will be plenty of good software titles on disk and CD-Rom (and perhaps even a few, like Encarta 2000, on higher capacity DVD-Rom) at BETT 2000. Peter Stibbons, managing director of Anglia Multimedia, says sales of his company's CD-Rom titles have doubled in the last year.
According to the BESA survey, 65 per cent of UK schools had Internet access in June 1999, and this figure is expected to reach 80 per cent by April 2000. However, statistics can be misleading; what's important is the quantity and quality of these Internet connections. BESA found that 44 per cent of schools offered Internet access to all, but almost one in five (18 per cent) of primaries do not offer any access to their students. Part of the reason is the high cost of an Internet connection, and although BT has launched services like Schools Internet Caller (SIC) and a lower-cost scheme for primaries - Schools Internet Caller - call charges remain a barrier.
Resources like the Virtual Teachers Centre, managed by the British Educational Communications and Technology Agency (BECTA) have helped to bring schools together, but Tony Wheeler, managing director of educational software supplier TAG, feels that: "There isn't an online community for teachers." At BETT, TAG plans to announce a new ISP specially developed for teachers: "Our model is about building a community rather than returning cash to telecoms companies."
BESA has also found that 45 per cent of schools have their own websites, but Maggie Holgate, general manager of the Parents Information Network (IN), says: "School websites are still rather closed environments. Few of them are inclusive of parents. Schools need to address a wider audience." Kids Online is a system that will enable pupils to log on to their school network at home, download homework and, after completion, send it back to the school server. Created by SIR, it's an exciting development, but it raises questions about access to ICT and how schools ensure that those pupils without a home PC and Internet connection are not disadvantaged.
BETT will also see a push towards wireless technology. In the same way that the mobile phone opened up a new way of communicating, wireless connections could transform ICT. Classes would no longer have to trudge down to the computer room - the computers could come to them. A laptop or palmtop computer could link up to the school network or even the Internet from almost anywhere around the school. Schools could make massive savings on cabling.
RM is taking part in a major project to examine the potential of wireless technology in schools, and at BETT will be talking about a wireless local area network (LAN) solution for schools. PCsupplier Akhter is pioneering wireless technology too, along with Xemplar which will be demonstrating wireless technology in its Wireless Theatre, using the Apple iBook portable computer and Apple's AirPort wireless technology.
Another wireless connection is being offered by a satellite service, Espresso for Schools. This sends lessons and other materials from an Astra satellite to schools, and resources can include full-motion video. However, it also requires a telephone connection.
Investing in ICT costs schools time and money, and RM's Hemmings says:
"Schools now have a choice: do they buy things or pay for services?" BETT will see many companies promoting a favoured government policy, managed services, which in the words of Hemmings: "allow others to tackle the ICT issues while schools focus on teaching and learning". According to BESA, almost one in 10 schools (nine per cent) now use managed services, and well over half (57 per cent) have expressed an interest.
Yet all the smart technology in the world is no good if teachers are not confident in using it. Tony Wheeler is one of many people concerned about professional development issues and ICT. So much so that TAG has launched a series of interactive teacher guides, including IT Matters, and Internet Matters, designed to show teachers how ICT can be used for teaching and learning.
BESA's survey also found that only 45 per cent of teachers felt confident about using ICT, and in secondary schools the figure was just 35 per cent. Mark East, general manager of Microsoft's Education Group, says: "The government's priority in investing in teacher training for ICT is right, but the way it's being executed is like a doctor prescribing the wrong course of antibiotics."
Many teachers need training in basic ICT skills, adds East, an area not fully covered by the pound;230 million from the New Opportunity Fund (NOF) for ICT teacher training. At BETT there will be many opportunities to see and use exciting technologies, but Eileen Devonshire, BESA's assistant chief executive, says: "We mustn't overlook the importance of harnessing the power of the technology and understanding its impact in the classroom."
Anglia Multimedia Stand:F44www.anglia.co.ukBECTA Stand: D70www.becta.org.ukBESA Stand: L35www.besanet.org.ukCompaq Stand: D100www.compaq.co.ukDialNet Stand: B82www.dialnet.co.ukDorling Kindersley Stand: C56www.dk.comukdefault.aspEspresso Stand:M87www.espresso.co.ukGranada Learning Stand: F40www.granada-learning.co.ukMicrosoft Stand: D30www.microsoft.comukPIN Stand: L44www.pin-parents.comRM Stand: D50www.rm.comSIR Stand: F80www.sirplc.co.ukTAG Stand: F50www.tagdev.co.ukXemplar Stand: E34F34www.euro.apple.comuk