THE vision of the "connected" classroom where pupils and teachers tap in with ease to banks of lively material far removed from the world of Sellotaped textbooks moved a step closer this week with further plans for a schools network in Scotland.
Ministers hope to complete detailed work by next summer on the Scottish Schools Digital Network, effectively an intranet system designed to link all schools in the country to a central curriculum service.
Nicol Stephen, Deputy Education Minister, outlined plans for the network last January in an interview with The TES Scotland but this week the Scottish Executive took the venture a stage further by responding to a consultants' inquiry into "integrated broadband communications for Scottish schools".
Broadband technology allows the transfer of vast amounts of data at high speeds and provides permanent access to the Internet. But its development has so far been largely restricted to the cities where companies spy more of a commercial return. Rural authorities have for some time complained about technological exclusion.
Wendy Alexander, Enterprise and Lifelong Learning Minister, has now moved to pacify the rural lobby by establishing two "pathfinder" projects in the south and north of Scotland which will test the technology's viability across the public sector. She was at Strathpeffer primary last week in Highland to launch the scheme.
Ms Alexander said: "Creating a state of the art infrastructure in some of Scotland's most rural areas is no less challenging than it was for the pioneers of the Industrial Revolution. The issues to be addressed cannot be tackled by the private or public sector alone."
In a bid to increase traffic on the system, ministers want to pool the broadband demand of schools, the Health Service and local authorities and spread the benefits of the e-revolution. In the south, the initiative will cover Dumfries and Galloway and the Borders; in the north, it will include Highland, the island authorities, Moray and Argyll and Bute.
Mr Stephen said: "Broadband will allow schools to exchange ideas in virtual communities of teachers and learners, giving pupils links across Scotland and across the world through, for example, live video."
The Executive in June placed a figure of pound;40 million over two years against the development of broadband technology but there were no sums against this week's announcements, suggesting moves to bring in the private sector.
Bruce Robertson, Highland's education director, welcomed the expansion. Schools, libraries and colleges are already linked through the University of the Highlands and Islands network but they would benefit from the extended broadband connections, he said. All secondaries, for example, are involved in the Scholar programme, offering online Highers and Advanced Highers.
He believes small primaries may have most to gain.
John Christie, director of lifelong learning in Borders, describes the initiative as "a big step forward" but believes schools are some distance away from e-learning. "There is an awful lot still to be worked on, not least what the ongoing costs are going to be for the council," he said.
Glasgow and Edinburgh schools have their own emerging intranet services. The NTL cable company put in broadband connections in Glasgow while Telewest linked up Edinburgh's schools. Different companies run the hardware and software.
Ian McDonald, Glasgow's depute director of education, said the system cost around pound;600 per school a year. There was still a "long way to go" before the intranet offered high quality e-learning materials that were regularly in use.
SPEED IS EVERYTHING
Broadband provides fast and reliable connections that deliver data at speeds of 2Mbits per second. The speed of the average home connection can be increased ten-fold. Broadband infrastructure varies from fibre optics and satellite to fixed wireless and mobile.