Boldly going into the future
When the Preston bypass was first opened in the Fifties, few would have appreciated that it would be developed to become the M6 and that within 30 years Britain's infrastructure would become so dependent on motorway transport with all the social and economic consequences that entails.
For similar reasons, many guard against being taken in by predictions about the future of the Internet, particularly those that appear based on a slim grasp of the past or present.
Nick Tate, my boss at the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, regularly warns against the predictions of "futurologists" - particularly pertinent given that the national grid for learning is taking its first tentative steps towards becoming a reality. The challenge with new technologies is to marry a radical vision with an evolutionary approach to implementation. There are likely to be three phases of development.
Phase one: Managers will use the grid to help them manage. Much of this information is already available. The initial focus should be on demonstrating how the grid can become an active mechanism for dissemination and for improving standards, rather than for amassing content. This will have an impact on the design of the grid's architecture, user interface and functionality.
The grid should provide models of good practice in curriculum planning that will allow teachers to locate resources based on a diagnosis of need rather than waste time in unfocused browsing or low-level exchanges.
At the qualifcations agency, we are particularly interested in the potential for including information about the qualifications framework and the national curriculum, including assessment standards, results and statistics.
Phase two: Teachers will start to use the grid for teaching. To have credibility, it must be flexible and authoritative, and provide high quality content that works in the classroom and addresses national priorities. It must be a mechanism for teachers to share good practice and this to be developed and promoted.
Distributing material that teachers will print for use in paper form is not a cost-effective replacement for traditional printing and distribution although it may be a complement. The grid's real potential lies in offering different forms of access, the effective use of richer and dynamic styles of presentation, and the opportunity to allow for interaction.
The prototype Virtual Teacher Centre has focused on providing authoritative information. Other support provided by teacher centres needs to be incorporated. This includes the capability to allow individuals and groups to consult with experts, for instance, in subjects, teaching and learning, and in assessment, and with each other for professional exchange and development.
Phase three: This will be the most exciting: learners will use the grid to instruct themselves. Britain has a history of innovation in educational software. The grid provides an opportunity to ensure that effective, home-produced software and resources reach the widest audience. If this is to happen, a basic technical standard needs to be specified.
One essential pre-requisite for the development of good software is a well-informed market. At present, it appears few teachers feel confident in their judgment as to what constitutes quality.
We are working with the British Educational Communications and Technology Agency to develop criteria that identify the crucial features of successful educational software. This will help teachers and others make informed decisions about which software to use and how to use it.
And, just as important, it will help developers ensure that the new software meets real needs.
Niel McLean is principal managerfor ICT at the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority