Hang Ups

12th May 1995 at 01:00
I am using the phrase "digital superhighway" in the first sentence, fully aware that most readers, wearied by endless press coverage, will rush to the next page faster than a gigabyte of data down a centimetre of fibre-optics. The only reader I can be sure of is the gerbil I've been told about who lives in a classroom somewhere in the Midlands. The teacher an avowed technophobe makes a point of lining its cage with The TES computer pages. I'm afraid that his days are numbered unless he learns to love IT: the superhighway is conceivably every bit as important as the hype merchants claim.

Teachers have to take it seriously when Gillian Shephard pens words that would win approval from the most committed cyberdude. In her consultative document, Superhighways for Education, she tells us that the impact of the superhighway is "likely to be as great as the changes brought about by the developments of printing, the internal combustion engine, and powered flight".

Before the year 2000, cable operators will have invested another Pounds 10 billion to fulfil the great British public's alleged appetite for two-way instantaneous broadband communication. It will mean that you can summon video-on-demand, video-conference, tele-shop until you drop and choose from a thousand or more channels, all of which will probably show repeats of the programmes you've assiduously managed to avoid up until now.

Cable might be as welcome in your home as a death-watch beetle, but there is no denying its enormous potential in schools. Superhighways for Education lists hundreds of ways in which it could be used to enhance the quality of teaching. A class studying French needn't wait a year for an exchange visit when video-conferencing enables them to share a virtual classroom with French pupils simply by keying in a telephone number. That's just one example: somewhere on the Internet is every conceivable resource (except more hours in the day) that any teacher could possibly need.

It's so heady a prospect that you'd think that a government even this one would recognise how fundamentally important it was to guarantee every child equal access. It must be glaringly obvious to anyone that, like the sewerage or mains water, every school should be connected.

Before LMS, GMS, and PTB (Passing the Buck), that might have been the case. But things have changed. Instead of the Government having to shoulder the awesome responsibility of getting it right, Mrs Shephard smugly reminds us that schools "are now the main arbiters of how their financial resources are spent. They will take the decisions in the future about whether or not to connect to the superhighway". What if a school is lumbered with a Neanderthal headteacher who thinks that the Internet is something illegal that Spanish fishermen use? Or, far more likely, one who has to spend every available penny on saving valued staff from redundancy and fixing the holes in the roof? In lots of schools the superhighway will remain a sci-fi daydream.

Others, of course, will grasp the opportunity. And you don't have to have a PhD in crystal ball-gazing to foresee that they will be the very same ones that have well-heeled PTAs and respectable positions in the performance league tables. Rather than bring equality, the Government's strategy seems guaranteed to create a society in Al Gore's telling phrase "of information haves and have-nots".

In fairness to Mrs Shephard, she is consulting teachers. The onus is now on them to read Superhighways for Education and to express their views loudly and clearly. And if any gerbils feel strongly enough, they should do likewise.

Superhighways for Education Pounds 4.95, HMSO, 0 11 270898 6 or from Department for Education's Internet: http:www.open.gov.ukdfedfehome. htm

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