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Strong currents in a tide of change

As a child did you ever try to dam a rivulet of rainwater heading down an open drain? If you did you soon discovered that it isn't possible. The water finds its own way around, often flooding parts you didn't expect. The answer is to create your own channels, directing the flow according to your intentions.

Information is like that. It finds its own way, and has the nasty habit of leaving the people who want to delay or control it, dramatically and embarrassingly sidestepped. This flow is one of the currents steering what are known as market forces. The fact is that if you don't find what you want in one place, you will seek elsewhere.

There's a danger that politicians, when told they are doing something better than they do in many other countries, are happy to rest on their laurels and do little more. In the fast-moving realm of information technology that is extremely dangerous.

So while educationists in the UK can feel pleased that schools are relatively ahead of other parts of Europe, they are also keenly aware of the need to press ahead because such a lead could be lost in an extremely short time. What is needed is a strategy and investment, as we are already witnessing the start of the next phase of the information revolution - communications.

What was thought of last year as "information superhighway" hype is starting to become a reality. The Department for Education is about to start its consultation with education and industry for building an "education superhighway", the Department of Trade and Industry has just made public its intention to connect English and Welsh secondary schools to the Internet system of international computer networks, and British Telecom's revitalised Campus 2000 network will offer Internet connection to its 4,000 subscribers within months.

Meanwhile, some schools are voting with their feet and getting Internet connections. And Internet watchers are aware, from intermittent checks on the lists of new organisations setting up pages on the World Wide Web, of a phenomenal drift of commercial organisations on to the system. It now takes just a minute to start browsing through the full text of an American newspaper, such as Silicon Valley's own San Jose Mercury News, for just the price of a local telephone call and a monthly connection fee of about Pounds 10.

So forget the hype, it is already time to formulate policy, make investments and remove some of the obstacles on the slip-road to the superhighway (See page 19).

As the UK moves towards the next general election it is becoming obvious that education and information technology are important issues and potential vote-winners, hence the current initiatives and the Labour Party's recent move to formulate new policies through a working group led by Chris Smith MP.

A comprehensive information technology strategy taking in both education and commerce is an ingredient for future economic prosperity. When America consulted industry and education to draw up the White House's impressive superhighway document, its aim was clearly spelled out - to create for the United States a world lead in science and technology to give its citizens a high standard of living.

In the run-up to the next election, educationists would do well to put forward their own shopping lists for the politicians and exploit the situation for what it's worth. The fact that communications is crucial to social and economic health does not guarantee it will happen in ways which would most benefit schools and colleges, so now is the time to get involved.

The danger of not making a full commitment to put schools on the technology front-line is that the school could very quickly fall behind the home in the technology stakes. Computers and CD-Rom are no longer a big deal. There is much more public awareness of the need for information technology. The home market that was talked about last year actually happened. In the pre-Christmas period Apple, Compaq, IBM and Packard Bell sold as many computers as they could produce for the High Street.

While the various schemes to put technology into schools have been welcome and successful, they have been piecemeal. Educationists now have enough expertise in what technology actually works well for education, and what does not, to help draw up a national policy that could be extremely effective and far-reaching. A quick trip down the Internet to see what Denmark has done (see page 4) shows what is possible. It also shows how easy it is to be overtaken when someone else comes up with a strong policy that is backed up by investment.

The UK will go with the flow of technology, if only because that is the way the world is going. But steering that flow and creating the channels, specifically the infrastructure for the UK superhighway, are now a national priority.

* The next Computers Update, publishedon June 23, will focus on communications,from school networks to global projectson the Internet.Information to Computers Update,The TES, Admiral House, 66-68East Smithfield, London E1 9XY.

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