Keeping up with the pace

16th October 1998 at 01:00
OH no, not another issue on the National Grid for Learning. This was an understandable reaction from a colleague who's already NGFL-weary. The trouble is, the Grid is probably the most important development in education right now. Huge sums of money are being invested, so if it fails, it will register as a national disaster. Publicly airing the issues is, therefore, crucial.

Which is why events like the Tactics Trends conference in Glasgow on November 4-5 are so important (see pages 21-28). Big networking projects are well under way all over Britain, with Scotland in the vanguard, so the two-day event couldn't come at a better time or place. The Scottish Office has just announced its Grid funding, and Tony Blair has unveiled extra funding of Pounds 105 million for England and Wales.

As communication is the purpose of this investment, it's fitting that those taking part should communicate. A perfect model for connecting schools has not yet emerged - maybe it never will - so keeping teachers, schools, colleges and decision-makers up to date with developments is crucial because the scene is changing day by day. Note, for example, Cable Wireless's national offer to schools, undercutting BT's and thereby introducing competition. This, in turn, ought to drive down prices - one of the barriers to schools hooking up to the Net.

The decision to go ahead with the Pounds 43 million Dudley "managed services" contract to supply computers, services and training for schools is another milestone. Starting next January, it is one of the first of the public-private partnerships touted by the Government as a way forward for schools.

Conferences are also interesting because they provide a view of what's happening in other countries. At the recent launch of the European Schoolnet, the Swedish minister for schools and further education revealed that her country offers three-week training sessions for teachers. On successful completion, they are issued with a certificate and a multimedia computer for home use. It's amazing what a little imagination and commitment can achieve. Meanwhile, our Treasury still can't manage tax breaks for teachers to encourage them to buy their own machines.

Then there's bandwidth - a network's capacity to deliver information. Nigel Paine, chief executive of the Scottish Council for Educational Technology, is right to be concerned about this (see page 12). On a trip to the US four years ago, I met an educationist who was connecting Ohio schools. He insisted that schools use a network standard called T1 (very high capacity). His view of ISDN? "It's already out of date." Whoever's right, schools and local authorities have to be sure that the connections they install are capable of meeting demand for the near future. They need clear advice and leadership.

It's often hard to get people involved in educational technology to talk openly about these issues because they understandably feel compromised by decisions they, their school or authority have made. However, open discussion is important because fears are already being privately expressed that, in some projects, the demands that will be placed on a connection have been underestimated. Some schools, for instance, are using a standard known as ISDN1 which is regarded as too slow by many in the know who say ISDN2 is the minimum.

Training is another area in need of attention. Many involved in training are worried, and their biggest worry is that the documents that teacher-training schemes are being based on are unimaginative and flawed (see page 14). That's a serious issue that needs to be addressed now.

Okay, that's enough bellyaching. Soon we'll have heard enough about the Grid and how it is being constructed. Next we will want to see how it's making a difference for teaching and learning. Meanwhile, communication between the key people and organisations overseeing this venture is needed to avoid some dangerous pitfalls - after all, this is a communications revolution.

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