Gaps in the grid?

7th November 1997 at 00:00
Gerard Macdonald says the Green Paper on a national IT grid deserves to be welcomed, despite the difficulties

The Government has finally published proposals for its National Grid for Learning. Its Green Paper, Connecting the Learning Society, sets out a plan for educational connectivity. This is the world's most ambitious national framework for on-line learning.

Structurally, the Grid depends on Internet links. In parallel, therefore, the telephone regulator, Oftel, has published a statement, Access to the Superhighway for Schools, giving its preferred options for BT's educational pricing and Net-connection policy. There are real advances here.

The regulator has taken the point that dial-up connection over a standard phone line is really not much use to schools or colleges - though that's still what many schools will get. And he doesn't yet accept that what education ultimately needs is a dedicated connection: a virtual private network. Nor is the proposed high-quality phoneline, ISDN2, ideal. It means that bandwidth (capacity) limitations may prevent teachers and students discovering the real learning potential of the Grid. The crucial question of internal networks within schools and colleges is hardly mentioned.

Oftel has even more serious problems in dealing with the last administration's anti-competitive legacy. Because the Tories turned BT into a privatised leviathan, the regulator is charged with disguising a quasi-monopolistic structure by protecting the minnows of the telecoms pond ( everyone else in the game).

Thus BT's connection and network-use charges to schools can come down only so far to avoid what the rest of the bunch would see as unfair competition. For the same reasons, BT can offer lower and stable network prices only to "schools as defined in statute". Limited hours of use are allowed at these prices. That's a discouraging start for the learning component of Welfare to Work, for the University for Industry and, more generally, for lifelong learning, most of which must go on outside schools, and outside working hours.

But such reservations shouldn't distract us from celebrating the Government's real achievement: the first viable plan for connecting Britain's educational community. Whatever improvements need to be made (and there are many) the fact is that we will soon have in place an essential tool.

The Green Paper asserts that "developing a nucleus of good quality content will be our prime concern". Rightly so. The question is, how?

Apparently the main initial focus will be on a virtual teachers' centre "to stimulate the development of appropriate content for the Grid by teachers themselves". Such content will be "drawn together centrally into a coherent and logically organised package, with links into other sites and . . . space for discussion by teachers and school management".

The users of this material will include infant and primary school teachers, subject specialists, heads of primary, secondary, and special schools, senior management and school budget holders, special-needs co-ordinators, teachers developing home-school or school-industry links, librarians and careers teachers.

Take a breath here. The aim is absolutely right. But the task of turning teachers into creators of "coherent and logically organised" packages of interactive multimedia over such an educational range is, I suspect, much more daunting than the authors of the paper anticipate.

Other difficulties lie in the path of the proposal to open up a "much wider range of services" which could include "new value-added content provided on a demonstration and subscription basis" by private companies. This harks back to the Tory mantra for curricular resources: "private enterprise will do it". It was a clear prescription and, evidently, it was wrong. When companies looked at the size of the market and the size of the necessary research and development budget, they didn't do it. They went elsewhere. Teachers were - and still are - left without the resources they need.

The most telling example is the area of information and communication technology (ICT). Teachers do badly here not because they're Luddite, or reactionary, but because they simply don't know what to teach. Existing curricula are intellectually incoherent and (given the revision-and-publication cycle) almost certain to be out of date. As a result, we've sent a generation of young people into the world - into the information age - with poor understanding of what will be a main influence on their lives and work.

The National Grid will help here. It will let us deliver regularly updated, customisable resources in ICT - and of course in other disciplines. But the Grid won't, of itself, produce everything teachers and students need. We will have adequate curricula only when there's money to put into a publicprivate partnership of on-line teacher training. Only when these conditions are fulfilled will we start to see the "high quality British software" of which the Prime Minister speaks.

There are other gaps in the Green Paper - but it's up to us to add the missing detail. The government has given us an imperfect but promising structure to build on. Now it's our turn: we should respond. The "we" includes teachers, teacher-training agencies, colleges, universities, software producers, publishers, broadcasters and the National Council for Educational Technology, or its successor.

In the National Grid, we've been offered an unparalleled opportunity for the next millennium. Those who want a more professional education service should grab the chance.

Gerard Macdonald is a consultant to the Future Learning Centre at the University of London's Institute of Education

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