A fair share of the Web

9th January 1998 at 00:00
The Prime Minister wants every school to be linked to the Internet. So does Bill Gates. So do companies backing UK NetYear. Jack Kenny tries to disentangle who has what to gain.

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 Telecommunications, 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 Pounds 3,000 per school) allocated by the Government and local authorities. The embryo grid already exists, with around 6,000 schools connected. In Staffordshire, 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 organisation 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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