Biggest classroom in the world;Millennium;Education

15th May 1998 at 01:00
Inside the Greenwich Dome (above right), a giant space will be devoted to education, but the opportunities for learning are truly global. George Cole explains

Love it or loathe it, you will not be able to ignore the Millennium Dome. The pound;758 million structure being built at Greenwich will be roughly the size of two Wembley Stadiums and will be at the heart of the national celebrations at the turn of the century.

Education will feature prominently in the exhibitions the Dome houses. As Maggie Semple, head of education for the New Millennium Experience Company (NMEC) puts it: "The Dome will be a huge learning resource."

Kim Howells is the government minister with responsibility for the Dome. "We want people to be able to see what education is going to be like in the 21st century," he says. "We want every school in Britain to be able to access the Dome through the Internet."

Inside there will be The Learn Zone, a 1.5-acre site devoted to education. The Dome has attracted a lot of interest and much controversy. Critics say that the money would be better spent on schools and hospitals. But such critics forget that many millions will be raised from sponsorship deals specifically set up for the Millennium. If the Dome did not exist, much of the money would not be available for such projects either.

Kim Howells adds: "We are spending unprecedented amounts of money on ICT (information and communications technology) for schools and in training teachers how to use it, so I don't think you gripe about that. If we are only concerned with the here and now, rather than seeing how learning could evolve in the future and celebrating this, we will be the poorer for it."

But the building is not above criticism. The wider public is only beginning to get some idea about its contents. The lack of information available before now has caused much frustration and fuelled endless speculation. But Eileen Devonshire, assistant chief executive of the British Educational Suppliers Association (BESA), believes the Dome presents education with a great opportunity.

"My attitude is that there is no going back - the Dome will happen. Instead of simply criticising it, we should see it as a unique opportunity for celebrating the educational successes of the country."

She points out that there is no single national site open to the public that focuses on education. It is expected to attract local, national and international audiences: "It's a chance to look back and also look to the future," she adds.

Stephen Heppell, director of Anglia Polytechnic University's Ultralab, sits on the Dome's education steering committee. "The Dome is about what we want schools of the future to be," he says. "It's got to be more than just a sideshow. Every great exhibition in the past has been an important milestone involving great changes of thought. The way we organise learning throughout our lives in the next millennium will require a radical shift in thinking."

Ultralab is well qualified for the task - in 1993, it prepared a paper for the Department for Education and Employment on the classroom of the future. Initiatives such as the National Grid for Learning and Lifelong Learning will be part of this future.

Stephen Heppell adds that some 35,000 people are expected to visit the Dome every day: "It's an impressive number, but we mustn't forget that most of the nation is not living in Greenwich."

Kim Howells says it will be tempting to make the Learn Zone worthy but dull: "But we want it to be vibrant and interesting. People will be surprised and delighted by what they find there."

Maggie Semple adds: "Every local educational authority or board will get the opportunity to have a day in the Dome to exhibit their work. We'll make a record of the work and send it via the National Grid for Learning to schools around the UK. People who can't get to the Dome can still take part. Not all projects will be Dome-centric, and work can be created and displayed away from it."

The Millennium Experience Company has appointed 12 regional and national educational managers whose task is to talk to people involved in education, including headteachers, chief education officers, voluntary services and librarians. Because learning takes place in many places besides schools, including hospitals, prisons and libraries,"we're keen to get as many ideas as possible", says Maggie Semple..

This month, the company plans to announce around half a dozen big educational projects linked to the Dome, and sponsored by large companies. One project has already been announced by Education Secretary David Blunkett: Tesco SchoolNet 2000 is an ambitious project sponsored by the supermarket chain aiming to give every school pupil the opportunity to display their work on a vast website, which will also be accessible from the Dome, and from a series of touch-screen terminals in Tesco stores.

EMPLAR, the technology services supplier, which is providing technical support, is also involved in Tesco SchoolNet 2000 as is Ultralab, which is managing the website, and the New Millennium Experience Company. The project's curriculum steering group includes parents and organisations such as NAACE, the computer advisers' association. The pound;6 million project starts in September and will run until December 1999. Pupils will be encouraged to become "investigators" and dig out facts about their local environment. The information they collect may be in the form of text, pictures or sound.

"A pupil might interview a grandparent about how they used to travel to school, and the conversation could be stored on the web-server as an audio file," says Stephen Heppell.

Tesco is paying for 50 advisory teachers to leave the classroom and support schools taking part in SchoolNet 2000. Around 350 of its stores and local libraries in certain areas will be equipped with desktop computers with Internet connections, and there will also be equipment for creating web pages, including scanners, digital cameras and web software.

"We will be asking schools to nominate two teachers who will be responsible for the project," says Teresa Selvey, who is managing the project for Xemplar. "We will also provide support materials, but we don't want to be prescriptive about what schools should do."

"The project is about content created by children for children and for the community," says Stephen Heppell. He adds that other initiatives, such as British Telecom's Mill-e-Mail, which will provide a free e-mail address to every child over the age of nine, could form part of the Dome's Learn Zone.

"Imagine wearing a special badge which had your e-mail address stored on it," says Stephen Heppell. "If you wanted more information about an exhibit in the Dome, a bar-code reader could scan your badge and send the information to your web address. It would be an end to the bulging carrier bags everyone carries around at exhibitions, and a wonderful mechanism for follow-up activities."

No one knows whether the Dome will be a resounding success or a dismal failure, but one thing is certain: the opportunity for schools to take part in a national educational project on this scale won't happen again for many years.

Tesco SchoolNet 2000 page 39.


* It's an opportunity to celebrate the past and the future * It aims to involve the whole nation and not just those based in London * Education and learning play a central role * It will give schools the opportunity to display their work to a global audience * It will involve schools and communities working together, and will use developments such as the National Grid for Learning to connect them FIVE ARGUMENTS AGAINST THE DOME

* It's costing a lot of money * Schools are lacking resources for books, computers and other essentials * It's based in Greenwich and is not easily accessible * The public has had little say about its content * It could become one of the biggest white elephants ever seen

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