Great leap forward;Cover feature;National Grid for Learning

15th October 1999 at 01:00
Birthdays are a time for celebration, but as the National Grid for Learning approaches its second year is there sufficient cause to rejoice? George Cole takes an overview of what has been achieved and what is still to be addressed, followed by an analysis of projects and trials.

Birthdays are always a time of reflection and as the National Grid for Learning (NGFL) approaches its second (and middle age), it's a good time to examine what has been achieved and what issues are still to be addressed. The Government's vision is for Britain's 32,000 schools to be connected to the NGFL by 2002. Although many schools did not receive their NGFL-funded equipment until autumn 1998 - and some schools were still installing equipment last summer - the speed at which they have been connecting to the Internet has been swift. According to the Department for Education and Employment (DFEE), 62 per cent of primaries are now connected to the Internet, compared with 17 per cent a year ago. The figure for secondary schools is 93 per cent.

Michael Wills, the new minister for schools information and communications technology (ICT), says: "We inherited a position where virtually nothing was being done in terms of ICT and education. The previous government did not make it priority. What we have today is a huge leap forward from a standing start. We're pleased with the progress, but not complacent."

Eileen Devonshire, assistant chief executive at the British Education Suppliers Association (BESA), says: "We welcome the significant investment in ICT for schools during the lifetime of this government. It's resulted in a dramatic increase in Internet connections and the purchase of computers by schools." Sheyne Lucock, executive committee member of ACITT, the IT teachers' association, agrees that the funding for ICT and education is most welcome, although he has some reservations over its allocation. "'In the initial phase you had LEAs competing against each other, and so you didn't get people sharing ideas, which was a pity."

The government gave LEAs a commendable degree of freedom on how the standards funding was spent locally, but the result is that LEAs have adopted different strategies when it comes to developing the NGFL. Some authorities have gone for a Big Bang approach and connected all their schools to the Internet at the same time, even though this has meant resources are spread thinly. Others have gone for a roll-out strategy, which inevitably means some schools are still waiting for equipment. LEAs such as Birmingham and Staffordshire have set-up authority-wide learning networks. Others, like Wakefield, have launched NGFL-based websites offering many teaching resources. Some LEAs have given schools the freedom to use the funding as they wish; others have opted for a common strategy involving all local schools. There are clearly many pathways to the NGFL.

There are three big issues surrounding the NGFL: its infrastructure in terms of getting schools hooked up to the grid; the availability of compelling content; and whether teachers have sufficient skills to make the best use of the grid. The DFEE's figures on school connections look impressive, but what is more important is the quality and type of connection schools have. The fact that a local authority has put a single computer and Internet connection into every school looks impressive on paper, but its overall impact on learning will be minimal.

Lucock says: "Ideally, you need Internet connections in every classroom so it's important that schools have sufficient cabling in every room. And if you want to offer high-speed connection to the Internet, that could mean replacing every PC in a school. All this takes time."

RM's Internet for Learning service has signed up 9,000 schools and the company says 3,900 primary and 1,000 secondary schools have networks connected to the Internet rather than a single machine. RM adds that an encouraging picture is emerging in terms of the rate at which schools are linking up to the NGFL, although the company believes only 50 per cent of primary schools are online, compared with the DFEE's figure of 62 per cent.

BT's School Internet Caller offer has been criticised on both price and performance. The service costs schools pound;790 a year, but there are restrictions on when the Internet connection can be used (between 8am and 6pm). BT has since launched a lower tariff for primaries (pound;450 per annum), but this restricts Internet use to 15 hours a week. Others believe ISDN technology is already insufficient for many schools' needs. "They say you should never give schools today's technology because it's soon out of date," says Nigel Ward, managing director of Granada Learning.

Mark Duddy, managing director of Internet service provider Dialnet, adds:

"Most schools need something faster than ISDN, but that costs. The government is realising that the telecoms companies are part of the problem and not part of the solution." However, minister Wills says BT is introducing new and faster technologies, and changes in regulations will give other telecoms companies direct access to the customers' phone lines, allowing them to offer a range of faster connections.

Yet while the technology is important, the learning grid will stand or fall by its usefulness as a teaching and learning resource. This means providing good content and having teachers and pupils with the skills to get the best out of it (see box, left). As BESA's Eileen Devonshire puts it: "The real opportunities for the future lie in exploiting the full potential of the grid - understanding the complex nature of online learning and its impact on current practices, rather than simply using technology as an add-on to teaching practice."

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