There's a popular saying among media people: "Content is king". It means that unless you have good programmes on your TV or cable network, or good materials and information on your online service, you won't attract customers and advertisers.
In the days when schools relied solely on stand-alone computers, some poor teacher or technician had to load the "content" (software and materials) machine by machine. Some may still be doing this. But in these days of networks, much of the content is already being supplied under contract by companies like Granada Learning, RM and AngliaCampus. CD-Roms from Granada Learning, for example, are accessible from one central server in schools all over the Hertfordshire network.
At home, all you have to do is buy a TV, put up an aerial (or subscribe to cable) and buy a licence and you have at least five channels' worth of content. On schools' computer networks it's rather different.
As the British Educational Communications and Technology Agency points out, content, so far, is just one element of three: the other two are infrastructure and training. The Government is already connecting schools and the latest take-up figures are encouraging (page 5). There's also a massive training programme under way for teachers and the Teacher Training Agency skills-needs analysis CD-Rom is now in schools so that they can assess their training needs (page 28). So where does this leave content?
The good news, as Online's writers have discovered (cover feature page 10), is that there's plenty of good content out there, give or take the odd gap or two. Theoretically, when schools of the future turn on their computers they will be able to select the best educational software and websites and sometimes they will not realise, or care, which is which and where it is coming from. That will be when the dust storm of the current digital gold rush will have settled, and we will have more idea of who will be selling what and, crucially, for how much.
The most exciting feature of the learning grid, however, is the contribution from children, and there is no better example than the work of the Year 6 pupils at Hempshill Hall school in Nottingham (centre pages) who have won the Arts Council's Chrisi Bailey Award for Photography and Digital Imaging with Young Children. Their outstanding work, both poetic and artistic, is a credit to their teacher, Stuart Harrison, and was a fitting reward for the parents of the late Chrisi Bailey who actively support the award (Chrisi helped pioneer schools photography projects).
Hempshill, and all the other schools producing first-class work on the Net, prove that individual schools have much to contribute to the learning grid. When children's creative endeavours work towards a real audience, everyone can benefit - it shows that the notion of content as something we passively consume is a fallacy.
If people ever tell you that you should only use one kind of computer, view them with extreme suspicion. They usually want you to enter a one-way street because it suits them rather than you.
Apple Computer is quite right in expecting fair play from the IT professionals who present schools with PC-only solutions (page 6). The purpose of networks is to include people, not exclude them.
Apple is one of only 12 companies to be kitemarked by the Government as an approved education supplier. As such it deserves to be taken seriously and not excluded by ignorant back-room nods and winks. It's a sad day when choice and innovation can be stifled by what are often the whims of administrators.
The Scottish Council for Educational Technology's chief executive, Richard Pietrasik (Profile, page 8), believes computer platforms are no longer an issue. He's happy for schools to make their own choice. That's something the Government says, too. In our wired world, denying schools the use of machines like iBook laptops, with instant high-speed radio connection to networks, is folly.