Surfing to a Grid reference

HEN people ask me, "What's the National Grid for Learning for? What will it provide that isn't on the Internet?", I usually suggest they try searching for material to use with key stage 2 children on Queen Victoria. After a fruitless evening spent sifting information on Australian hotels and guesthouses, they usually see the point.

In the days of the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority, an Internet search on SCAA most often led to the Specialist Coffee Association of America. When SCAA became the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, I became an expert in the goings on of the Quebec Cultural Association. At BECTA (see footnote), where I find myself now, those frustrations are fewer, which says something about the emerging development of the Grid, and something about the advantages of unique acronyms.

The Internet does three things. It is a virtual library, albeit a poorly organised one, giving access to a huge range of digital content. It is a publishing medium, where individuals, schools, government and others can tell the world what they are about. Lastly, and most significantly, it allows communities to share information, practice and resources. The Grid needs to address all these: teachers and learners need access to content of the highest possible quality, which addresses their needs and which can be easily located.

The Grid should also provide a straightforward conduit for information. Much of the printed information provided by government and its agencies is essential without being interesting. This is inevitable. The statutory assessment arrangements for key stage 3 will never make for a riveting read. The Grid has a real role in providing information of this sort authoritatively, in a way that saves time and reduces bureaucracy. Lastly, the Grid should, of course, provide a means for sharing ideas and practice.

We are well on the way to establishing, through the Virtual Teachers' Centre and Michael Barber's Standards and Effectiveness Unit database, a core of authoritative information. The next step is to inter-link the material at a deeper level, making more explicit links between, for example, inspection findings, statutory requirements andcurriculum guidance.

We are also seeing the first hints of teaching communities developing the use of the Grid. Here we still have a long way to go. Groups flourish if they share real interests and the quality of contributions is high. No one will return to a discussion that is poorly focused, rambling or dominated by particular individuals. BECTA's work with the special needs co-ordinators' forum and its support for literacy consultants will provide useful models for managing large discussion groups.

Providing access to quality resources and content presents problems of its own. There are two issues. First, how do I locate the material I need? Second, how do I know I can trust it? These can partly be addressed from the user end. If everyone had the skills to develop a search strategy, and identify and discriminate between sources, the problem would diminish. These skills should form a key component of training all teachers and educating all children. In the case of the Grid, however, this needs further addressing at the implementation end.

I believe that some form of cataloguing, or "meta-tagging", of resources will be essential. History material could be tagged according to the level of demand, the period, the key theme (such as "crown and state"), and the skills developed. Teachers and others could then search the Grid using a shared language, knowing that they would find whatever was available. Asking subject communities to consider the best ways of identifying resources in their areas could provide a first step in supporting those communities using the Grid.

If all this seems a little pedestrian when contrasted with the anarchy and excitement of the World Wide Web, let's not forget that the Grid is there to enhance the Internet, not replace it. It will still be possible to leap from the symphony, to Mozart, to Vienna and, via Viennese coffee houses, to Brazil. It's just that the Virtual Teachers' Center will provide a more focused route for those without the time or inclination to surf.

Niel McLean is the schools manager for the British Educational Communications and Technology Agency (BECTA)

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