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Strategy in a world on the move

Planning limited resources is difficult when information technology is changing so rapidly. Stephen Heppell tries to pluck a few straws from the wind

A similar concern echoes around every school policy committee: "How can we make long-term strategic decisions based on a sensible understanding of what will happen next in information technology, when even the computer companies don't seem certain of what will happen in the next 12 months?" The BETT 96 show is a good time to take stock and examine not just the next gizmo that promises to change our learning lives, but the underlying decisions that teachers, schools, local and national authorities should focus on. To make those decisions we must seek some clear straws in the wind and this year there are plenty for those with minds sufficiently open to see them.

First, it was impossible to ignore the bombardment of Christmas advertisements for home multimedia computers: even a cursory exploration of the pre-Christmas media finds computer ads suggesting: "Explore new places and things. Learn and play"; "Making schoolwork dynamic and different"; "will offer both children and adults endless hours of education and enjoyment". Look for plenty more of the same at BETT.

There are more households in the average-sized town than there are schools in the whole country. Not unreasonably computer manufacturers are targeting the family with their products. Even the most cautious estimates see that the result has been a massive investment by UK households in learning technology.

In these times of competition for parental first choice, any school policy that ignores this investment does so at its peril. These past two or three years are unique in postwar Britain in that many parents have, despite general financial hardship, invested massively in technology with a clear expectation that children's learning will benefit. Not only will they not be best pleased if schools take no notice, but education will have failed to capitalise on a wonderful resource in a way that makes our annual pleas of institutional poverty ring hollow.

So how should schools respond? The action plan should include: * Schools should clarify and publish their policy towards computer-aided work. This is not trivial: it includes those with exam classes being absolutely clear about the contributions allowed for project work and the position of the line between plagiarism and research. Badger the examination board stands at BETT with this question.

* Schools should be proactive in steering those with home computers towards appropriate learning activity and heading off the counter-school culture of drill and practice edutainment. You will find plenty of imported drill-and-practice at BETT too. Look at it carefully and be aware of the damage the worst of it can do to our curriculum. Be vocal, be critical. Bluntly put, if schools do not suggest what children should do with their computers at home, someone else will and we will have to live with the consequences. Comb BETT for good ideas.

* Schools should consider their policy to-wards the minority without home equipment (if you don't believe it is a minority, survey it). Open access after school, encouraging collaborative homework, alternative assignments are among the strategies. So which are yours?

The second clear straw in the wind has been the explosion that was the Internet. Where did that one come from? To suggest that everyone was caught napping is an understatement and a wander around BETT 96 will clearly reveal that where 1995 was the year when everyone talked about the World Wide Web and a good number of pioneering schools prospected for rewards, 1996 will be the year when everyone joins the gold rush.

Just as in the Klondyke exactly 100 years ago, many will get rich, many will get frozen out or heartbroken and the infrastructure will be transformed faster than anyone can believe or predict. Schools can learn plenty from the gold prospectors: trust nobody; don't rely on others' protection schemes; keep your money safely locked away and try to resist getting intoxicated by the excitement of it all.

Like it or not, by the end of 1996 a substantial number of your students will be connected through schools, through telephone and cable companies at home; through subscription and through parental work. This is not a time for the digital equivalent of book burning, but it is a time to develop critical awareness.

In terms of school this means that staff awareness-raising should be an absolute priority. This translates as a couple of after-school sessions with a big screen before finding the nearest higher education institution and begging, borrowing or, in the last resort, paying for, a day of staff development. This will basically consist of as much hands-on time for colleagues as can be crammed into the day.

Higher education institutions have Internet access with zero marginal cost through the Joint Academic Network (Janet) and SuperJanet; they have networks of computers. Look out for HE badges at BETT and go to them quickly before everyone else does.

The third straw in the wind is something that everyone noticed, but nobody really thought through. The same day as the O J Simpson trial ended, Tony Blair stood up at the Labour conference in Brighton and made a number of promises. The headlines, and indeed the national news for the next four days, focused on new Labour's radical promise to connect every school and library to the Internet (permanently, not dial-up) in exchange for allowing BT a future.

While this is spectacular enough, he also slipped in that Labour intended to address "the goal of ensuring that every - yes, every - child has access to a proper laptop computer". And he promised there would be "no haves and have-nots in the computer age". It is inconceivable that such a policy would proceed without the same level of entitlement being levelled at teachers too.

Well, a week is a long time in politics, let alone a year and the next election is hardly won, but it is impossible not to reflect that the next year could change our present government for one with promises like these hewn in tablets of stone. At a stroke this would have the effect of transferring the responsibility for providing access to hardware from the overburdened schools to the family - and you might await with interest the financing model that accompanies the policy.

Schools' policy here is actually rather straightforward: in addition to improving the dialogue with parents I mentioned earlier, schools need to harness national curriculum agencies and examination boards (most have stands at BETT) to start anticipating the impact of personal ownership. One thing is certain - children brought up with a computer in their backpacks will not be easily parted from it at the examination or test room door. Indeed, if they develop new creative skills as they confidently conquer the technology in their pockets, then to rob them of their creative tool would be about as fair as insisting that they write in Latin. Where does criterion referencing stand when technology advances the criterion every year?

These then are our tasks as we survey landfill sites full of Christmas multimedia packaging and a BETT show awash with more excitement and opportunity than ever: improve relationships with parents; involve the home more in our learning; address our own professional development; lobby the national curriculumagencies and examination boards and look forward to a new Education Secretary. Perhaps it's not such a revolutionary year ahead after all.

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