A fair share of the Web

16th January 1998 at 00:00
It was a controversial moment when Bill Gates and Tony Blair appeared outside + No 10 last October on the day the Government's plans for a national grid for + learning were announced. It was a photo-opportunity to signal how serious + Labour is about connecting every school in the country to the Internet, + equipping them with the right machines and training teachers so that they will + be able to use the technology with as much confidence as their pupils. In + addition, the intention is to train teachers in the more difficult trick of + exploiting the potential of all that educational material on the grid. All this+ is to be realised by 2002, the end of Labour's first term of office.More + government initiatives and funding are likely to be announced next week at the + BETT educational technology show. And the whole project will get a kick-start + from an independent drive to connect schools when UK NetYear (see right) is + launched. The idea is to encourage as many schools as possible to install the + connections that will enable them to log on to the Internet. Once that hurdle + has been overcome, this will help to provide the critical mass for the national+ grid - internet services dedicated to education - to get established because + it will have more users and so more relevance. The grid itself is expected to + be launched in September but, like everything else in this fast-changing field,+ you must be prepared for the plans to alter.There has been a mixed reaction to+ "Connecting the Learning Society", the Government's consultation paper on + connecting schools to the Internet, probably because the document has the feel + of a blueprint rather than the beginning of a dialogue. The trouble with + phrases such as "national grid for learning" and "university for industry" is + that they are pure spin-doctorese, with little substance. Many people now claim+ to have coined the term "national grid for learning" - it's such a good phrase+ and has been taken up so speedily that it doesn't seem to have occurred to + anyone what an awful metaphor it could be, encapsulating everything that most + teachers dislike: a top-down approach, pre-determined paths, uniformity, + rigidity.Unquestionably, schools have a great deal to gain from being + connected. So do the computer and communications industries. The trick is to + ensure that the interests of schools predominate and we do not create cartels + that will slow innovation, locking schools in and competitors out. These also + appear to be the fears that fuel the response to the grid from Don Cruickshank,+ director-general of the Office of Telecommunic ations, the telecoms watchdog. + He says that schools must have choice of access to educational material and + warns: "Integrated provision could put too much power in the hands of certain + players and may stifle the innovation and creativity required for the content + market to flourish."Mr Cruickshank is obviously referring to the consortia that+ the Government en-visages providing maintained services to schools. He goes as+ far as to suggest that line connection to the grid should be "unbundled from + the other services" - it would be better if "connectivity was purchased + collectively on behalf of schools".In the end, the content and not the + presentation of the initiative will determine what teachers think of it. When + the Virtual Teachers' Centre is launched at BETT next week, it will be examined+ very critically indeed. "Tell people not to expect too much," someone from the+ National Council for Educational Technology said, anxious that expectations + have already been raised too high. The centre has to be more than just a list + of Web links; there has to be content to intrigue, to make life easier, to + spread expertise and to stimulate. Even then, none of it will be any use unless+ teachers have been trained to use it.Dominic Savage, chief executive of the + British Educational Suppliers Association, believes that this will be the last + chance we have to create information and communications technology (ICT) + literacy among teachers. "There have been failed initiatives in the past, but + we have to get it right this time, " he says.The plans for connection are + built on the offers from cable companies and BT (supervised by OFTEL). Some + schools are already finding that multi-user access is far more expensive than + they were led to believe. This cost, plus subscriptions to online services and + databases, could soon swallow the money (about #163;3, 000 per school) + allocated by the Government and local authorities. The embryo grid already + exists, with around 6,000 schools connected. In Staffordshir e, all the local + authority's secondary and primary schools have been connected from existing + funds, showing what is affordable and achievable if you have the vision, the + drive and the right partners.Everyone senses the importance of what we are + about to embark on. Consequently, no one wants to rock the boat by speaking + out. But many people have worries that they will only express anonymously. One + local authority adviser said: "I am not optimistic. The UK education + establishment has, so far, not made a success of the Internet. We have had four+ years or so since browsers made it accessible and there is hardly one useful, + rich, educational public Web site. The NCET's site has just three links for art+ and five for history. RM's excellent list of sites is restricted to + subscribers. BT's curriculum material is also restricted. There are some brave + efforts by individuals to fill in the curriculum gaps.There's even a + 10-year-old in the US who has created a site with more jumping-off points than + we have."So why don't we feel comfortable with the sprawling, ever-changing, + generous Internet? It seems we want to control it, and charge for it, and this + could stem creativity and innovation. One problem is that the cast hasn't + really changed. The visionaries in the Department for Education and Employment + who ignored the Internet and left it to the Department for Trade and Industry + and Schools On Line are still there, but singing a different tune. And few in + the ICT community are convinced that the Teacher Training Agency has really + discovered the power of ICT, despite the lip service it publicly pays it.Dennis+ Stevenson, author of the report on ICT commissioned by Labour in opposition, + shares some of the worries: "It is good to have a Prime Minister with this + commitment," he says. "It is right for us all who are involved to be worried, + but it would be wrong if we worried excessively. Bringing in the national grid + should not be too 'big bangy'. We should be incremental and gradualist. It is + going to be a hell of a thing to get it right first time or even 90 per cent + right. "The director of a small software company maintains that, ultimately, + teachers will save it. "There will be some bloody-minded teachers who will say,+ 'I don't want any of that'. But behind it all the Internet will still be + there, with all its fluidity, and there will be someone somewhere in the world + who will be doing things that are good and relevant, and some teachers will + move to them and there will be nothing that anyone can do to stop them. It + might be simplistic, but all a school needs is a good connection to the + Internet at an affordable price - and we haven't achieved that yet. We also + need an efficient central organisati on that co-ordinates and gives information+ freely." The grid will make a big difference if its architects look at the + nature of the Internet and harmonise things so that structures are fluid and + capable of changing. If they don't, it will mean reduced choice for schools, + ICT industry monopolies, millions of pounds wasted and a notional grid for + learning.

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