Fasten your seat belts

20th January 1995 at 00:00
Gillian Shephard wants education's computer and media gurus to write up their wish lists for her consultation on the "education superhighway", writes Merlin John. British schools and colleges could be pulling out on to an "education superhighway" sooner than they thought. Education Secretary Gillian Shephard will hold a major consultation exercise with education and industry, starting in the spring, to discover just what education wants from the superhighway, and how it can be achieved.

At the BETT '95 technology show in Olympia, London, last week, she said, "Help us look into the future, and into the unknown. We think the time is now right for you in the education world to give us your advice on how you would like to see the way ahead . . . It will be a major opportunity to make your views known to us indeed the first time we have sought your help like this in the IT field."

"We must know more about how superhighways can support teacher training, the delivery of the curriculum at all levels, and how they will help the development of IT capabilities for working life."

In a speech which impressed visitors, exhibitors and educationists alike with its range, depth and detail, Mrs Shephard made clear that she was not just talking about the Internet system of international computer networks and electronic mail projects, but what is known as "broadband" technology, and about ways of learning which include "flexible" learning this can be delivered anywhere there is a connection to the network (ideal for the workplace and the home).

Current computer users have to wait patiently while moving large amounts of information along ordinary telephone lines (particularly with graphics and video), but "broadband" breaks this information bottleneck. Based on optical fibre, it can handle massive amounts of information quickly, and is a natural carrier for multi-media the seamless blend of text, audio, graphics, animation and video that is ushering in a new generation of educational software.

While the consultation was broadly welcomed it came after all with the release of a further Pounds 3 million to extend the CD-Rom in primaries project observers were left wondering what octane fuel the Government will use for its superhighway journey. In the US, where the superhighways venture originated, the consultation began some two years ago. And Mrs Shephard's announcement comes uncomfortably close on the heels of the Labour Party's initiative to develop a superhighways strategy with a team headed by shadow Heritage Secretary Chris Smith.

The Minister's speech was "interesting", says Chris Smith, "but a few favourable words from Mrs Shephard do not make a Government policy". His Policy Forum is "looking to ensure that the maximum possible educational advantages from the network are gained throughout the country".

But the speech had an immediate welcome from IT educationists, for whom consultation is an all-too-rare treat, and from the industry (the mood on the BETT '95 British Telecom stand was buoyant). "This is a timely intervention, " says Dominic Savage, director of the British Educational Suppliers Association (BESA) which, with EMAP Education, organises the BETT shows. "Superhighway and broadband issues are set to revolutionise teaching and learning processes. As government initiatives to co-ordinate the birth of IT in the early Eighties gave Britain a world-wide lead, so an agreed way forward on to the superhighway will benefit British education. Schools and colleges can develop a common approach, and industry can move ahead with potential in international markets. However, good in-service training for teachers will be at the heart of a successful way forward."

"The good news is that they indicated a direction in which we can move towards a strategy," says Mike Smith, chair of the National Association of Advisers and Inspectors for Computers in Education. "They are asking the community for help and consultation. They are looking for partnership with education and industry and anyone else who is involved. It only works when you get these different factors coming together. It is where the superhighway goes to that is important."

A key player in any Britishsuperhighway will be British Telecom. Now privatised, with massive incomes and possessing world-leading technology, it has been prevented by government regulations from being a networks service provider, which is where the big revenues lie. This was intended to create a freer market, with competition from the emerging cable companies but in practice it has road-blocked the UK superhighway.

In the US the telecom companies offered up free superhighway connections for schools, colleges and hospitals in return for relaxing government controls. In the UK, however, there is an impasse (although Mrs Shephard's speech did contain a hint about broadband networks being affordable) until now.

"I was delighted to hear the Secretary of State's comments about developing an education superhighway and the announcement of the consultation exercise, " says Bruce Bond, BT's managing director of national business communication and a council member of the National Council for Educational Technology.

"Having a well-educated workforce is the key to the future of this country, not only in terms of economics, but also the quality of life of its citizens. It is imperative that we make the new learning tools and techniques available to everyone. BT has a lot to offer in terms of technological capability and research and understanding of this market, and we look forward to making a major contribution to the work."

The consultation schedule has yet to be decided, but it is understood that the DFE will issue a document in March to define the questions to be addressed. Meanwhile, the public debate wanted for so long by education is ready to commence. According to Mrs Shephard, "The education superhighway will not be a quick fix. But it will come and probably sooner than we expect. It is vital that potential users and suppliers come together now to help put a coherent strategy in place."

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