MICROSOFT, the global software giant, is insisting that delegates at a further education conference must sign a gagging agreement if they want to attend.
The UK division of the American company will reveal its "Vision for Managing Learning in Colleges" at the second FE Resources for Learning conference in Stratford-upon-Avon on November 20 and 21.
The conference programme, which promotes the effective use of information and communications technology in colleges, is funded by the Further Education Funding Council and managed by BECTA, the British Educational Communications and Technology Agency, which advises the Government on technology issues.
A Microsoft spokesperson said that all delegates were being asked to sign non-disclosure agreements, but would not comment further.
The conference website states that delegates will be given "a preview of the Microsoft systems and products, together with an insight into the Microsoft vision of managed learning environments".
It adds that conference staff are working closely with Microsoft to ensure that the "commercial sensitivities of the session are treated with utmost respect".
Microsoft is keen to protect any advantage it may have in so-called "managed learning environments".
These systems will be the main vehicle for delivering on-line learnin to students and are set to alter radically the face of education at all levels.
Any company that gets its foot in the door first in this market stands to profit handsomely.
The systems will deliver course materials and allow students to communicate with lecturers, share ideas and get help.
Granada Learning is expected to launch its its own learning system, called Learnwise, at the Association of Colleges' conference later this month. The sophisticated package has been developed over the past two years by a Wolverhampton University team led by Professor Steve Molyneux.
The JISC, which runs the UK academic computer network, earlier this year appointed a co-ordinator and set up a steering group to try to ensure compatibility between different learning systems across the sector.
The FEFC has provided pound;5 million for colleges in England to buy managed learning environment packages by April.
The pound;74m National Learning Network initiative is helping colleges to make the most of technology and train staff to use it effectively. It is also connecting colleges to the universities' high-speed SuperJANET network.
See websites: FERL: www.ferl.org.uk National Learning Network: www.nln.ac.uk. Managed Learning Environments in Further Education: progress report: www.jisc.ac.ukpub00c07_00.html