"WE ARE on the threshold of something of enormous significance," Harvey Stalker, HM chief inspector, told an Edinburgh conference last week.
Mr Stalker was referring to the Government's investment in information and communications technology and particularly the potential for vastly expanding international contacts between schools, the subject of the conference held at the Scottish Office.
The pound;62 million investment to link Scotland to the National Grid for Learning, backed by pound;23 million in lottery cash for teacher training (page six), would expand international horizons, Stuart Robertson, HMI with responsibility for ICT, said.
The list encompassed:
* Access to web-based information about other countries.
* Virtual visits.
* E-mail exchanges for projects.
* Video-conferencing for foreign languages.
* CD-Roms for foreign language learning.
* Online arrangements for foreign exchanges.
The target is that all teachers should be "confident" in using ICT by 2002, by which time the Government will have spent more than pound;1 billion in schools, colleges and libraries throughout the UK.
Several speakers urged caution, however, against becoming carried away by the technology. "Content not the infrastructure is what should drive the changes," Nigel Paine, chief executive of the Scottish Council for Educational Technology, said.
Professor Paine said ICT had the potential for "sparking off enthusiasm which can be capitalised on later". The key lay in using technology as a motivation to learn, "allowing us to build connected learning communities".
Opportunities provided by ICT must develop international understanding, Stewart Hay, depute head at Anderson High in Shetland, said. Anderson High has built up much-admired links with schools in Japan, Germany, the Czech Republic and South Africa. Its "global classroom" features extended pupil exchanges and annual conferences.
"In a small island you have to look outward," Mr Hay said. "But other people can look inwards as well."
Laura McLean, headteacher of St Timothy's primary in Glasgow, warned that increased use of new technology must not lead pupils to think they live in a virtual reality world. "The most important part of ICT is the c word - communications," Mrs McLean commented.
Links with other countries must constitute more than just the "tourist curriculum". The EU's Comenius project, which helps to support staff development, involved eight teachers from St Timothy's in joint training ventures. Schools had also collaborated in developing an anti-bullying pack as well as topics in art, music, dance, science and technology.
"The European dimension enhances the curriculum and enriches pupils' learning," Mrs McLean said. "It is not instead of something else. But grand plans and all the vision in the world are not enough unless the staff are committed and on board."
Rosetta McLeod, principal officer responsible for learning resources in Aberdeen, cited daily links between Tarves primary in Aberdeenshire and Hjukseb? school in Telemark, Norway. "The Norwegians tell us they now regard the Scottish school as simply another classroom, an addition to their school."
Aberdeen secondaries are currently in the midst of a major collaboration with schools in Italy, Holland, Sweden, Germany and Belgium. This involves training art teachers in distance learning and multimedia techniques.