The learning grid

7th January 2000 at 00:00
An advertisement once used the slogan "We're getting there", and this pretty well sums up the current status of the National Grid for Learning (NGFL). The Government plans to have the UK's 32,000 schools connected to the NGFL within two years, and progress is, to say the least, patchy around the UK. According to the last set of statistics released by the DFEE, 97 per cent of English secondary schools and 62 per cent of primaries, were linked to the Internet.

Andre Wagstaff, head of grid content and architecture at the British Educational Communications and Technology Agency (BECTA), says there are now around 250,000 pages of information on the Grid. The English version of the Virtual Teachers Centre (VTC) has been redesigned with more active pages and graphics, and a new feature, Betsie, offers a text-only display for visually impaired users. But the NGFL will only be as good as the people using it, and that means teachers need to confident about using ICT.

By the time the show opens, the Virtual Headteachers College, should be operational, says Wagstaff. A Government scheme is providing laptop computers to all headteachers in England who come into the post this year. They will also get access to a website, administered by Stephen Heppell, director of Anglia Polytechnic University's Ultralab. "These teachers will form the advance guard for the National College for Head Teachers," says Wagstaff, "and it will be a powerful model for other staff who see their heads using ICT." At BETT, there will be more details on the Government's scheme to subsidise the cost of computers bought by teachers in England (Scotland's is already under way). However, teachers must be signed up for the New Opportunities (NOF) Training and purchase their machine from an eligible supplier.

In Scotland, Jackie Galbraith, director of learning at the Scottish Council for Educational Technology (SCET) says: "There's been a lot of talk about the Grid, but there's very little evidence about what it can do for teachers in the classroom." Last September, SCET set up a team, funded by the Scottish Executive Education Department, and jointly managed by SCET and the Scottish Consultative Council for the Curriculum (SCCC), to develop the NGFL. It is composed of six specialists focusing on staff development, educational content, websites, infrastructure, community and NGFL helpline.

NGFL Scotland has provided funding for three multimedia CD-Roms that fit with the Scottish Higher School Curriculum, and a free copy has been sent to every secondary school in Scotland. A story book CD-Rom, containing lots of activities, has been sent to every pre-school and primary school. There have also been sponsored activities to develop online collaboration between children, such as recreating the Treaty of Versailles, a collaborative online role-play activity, which included 19 English schools (vew it at User id: Guest. Password: Guest, case sensitive).

"The key objective is to make the Grid relevant to the classroom," says Ms Galbraith. SCET is also devising primary head teachers' training courses for the NGFL and funding the development of software for the Grid. In January, SCET launches an innovation award that will offer winners pound;1,000-pound;5,000 each to create lesson plans and resources for the Grid. SCETPioneer is a web-based learning environment which is only accessible by registered teachers and pupils, and is likely to be offered to all Scottish schools as part of the NGFL.

The NGFL is about making connections between schools and in Wales, this has proved harder than the rest of the UK, says Martin Williams, co-ordinator of IT Services for Powys LEA: "Powys is a rural community and so there is no cable TV and no alternative to BT. As a result, we have spent a disproportionately large amount of our NGFL funding on telecoms." What is more, he adds, in large parts of Powys there is no access to digital ISDN lines, no ADSL high-speed digital lines and wireless technology is unsuitable due to the mountainous terrain. Many other parts of Wales also suffer from the same problem.

Powys had opted for a system of local tendering for products and services rather than opting for managed services: "I view with alarm the developments in England, which seems to suggest that managed services are the way forward. A one-stop shop sounds like a good idea, but it's a shame it has to be Harrods," says Williams. Powys has about half of its schools linked to the Internet, with the aim of reaching 100 per cent by April 2000.

Getting an overall view of the NGFL in Wales is difficult: "What we need in Wales is a national body responsible for maximising access to the NGFL, and it's a shame that in Wales, there was no requirement to spend 15 per cent of the NGFL funding on content as there is in England. So what you have in Wales is a very uneven picture," says Williams. But it is not all doom and gloom, he adds: "These are exciting times and a lot of good things are happening, albeit in pockets around Wales."

Northern Ireland is ahead of the game when it comes to the NGFL. Its NINE (Northern Ireland Network for education) was launched in 1997, and all of the country's primary, post-primary and special schools are connected to the Internet through it. In June 1999, a new-look version, NINE connect, was launched, offering a variety of services including filtered email, web-conferencing and the electronic exchange of information. This year sees the launch of Classroom 2000, a managed service providing schools with ICT equipment and support.

SCET NGFL team Stand: F54www.scet.comprojectsngfl.aspVTC VTC Cymru

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