A major step forward in linking all Scotland's schools through a national intranet will be taken next week with the signing of an ambitious multimillion pound contract.
The deal to provide the Scottish Schools Digital Network (SSDN), worth Pounds 37.5 million over five years, is billed as putting Scotland at the forefront of ICT in education. It will be signed at the annual SETT learning festival in Glasgow by Peter Peacock, Education Minister, and Tim Pearson, chief executive of the education software and systems giant RM.
This is a crucial piece in a complex ICT jigsaw which has already seen the Scottish Executive invest pound;10 million in a "content delivery infrastructure", which will allow schools to download "rich" media such as audio, video and music.
Mr Peacock said: "Technology has the power to transform learning and teaching. The digital network we are putting in place will give teachers faster, more reliable access to resources on the web and is one of the biggest projects of its type anywhere in the world."
Procurement of the intranet, the online learning environment, began in October 2003 and culminated in the announcement of RM as the preferred supplier in July. The aim is to have all Scottish schools using the network by the end of 2008.
John Connell, director of the SSDN, which is part of Learning and Teaching Scotland, organiser of the SETT show, told The TES Scotland there were 96 expressions of interest for the contract and many excellent bids.
Mr Connell said "the richly textured, multimedia broadband environment", with video-conferencing facilities and educational simulations as well as online learning and teaching resources, will be "hugely motivating" for pupils and teachers alike.
The greatest potential for growth, he suspects, lies in the "social software" designed to enable teachers and pupils to collaborate, co-operate and communicate in creative directions no one can entirely foresee.
"As they build virtual learning communities from the bottom up, using the collaborative tools and environments we are providing, they will begin to work together in all sorts of exciting new ways," Mr Connell said.
Safety and security is a key factor. "A national system of authentication will allow each user to log in safely and securely: the system will know , what you are allowed access to and, crucially, what you are not allowed access to."
A joint RM-SSDN team has been set up in LT Scotland's Glasgow offices to work with all 32 education authorities and organise the training of teachers.
"We are aware that good relations with that team around the country will be crucial to the success of the project. If we had simply devised a good technical solution and thrown it at the authorities, it probably would not work," Mr Connell said.
He acknowledged that raising awareness in schools about what the network will do for learning and teaching will be a long process. "We are taking our time and we are talking to people at every step of the way," Mr Connell said. "We are determined to get this right."
The infrastructure for the venture - the Interconnect - has been in place since the first half of 2004. It is an extension of the SuperJANET network, designed and operated by UKERNA - the United Kingdom Education and Research Networking Association - and provides broadband connections to every authority in Scotland, as well as national agencies such as Learning and Teaching Scotland and the Scottish Qualifications Authority.
SETT preview in Scotland Plus