Link learning is it the business?

17th March 1995 at 00:00
A private company is installing free multimedia centres in 35 schools across Merseyside. Reva Klein reports.

Here's a modern fairytale for our times. Your technologically challenged school is visited by a fairy godfather who gives you a room full of spanking new multimedia machines, together with someone to look after them, stop them from turning into pumpkins, that sort of thing, in exchange for the space.

A dream come true? Well no, actually. The fairy godfather in question is a very wealthy young businessman called Karl Chapman, who is the self-proclaimed architect of something he calls the Learning Superhighway. His company, CRT Group Plc, is pouring millions of pounds into putting multimedia PCs into schools. Lots of computers, in fact, into lots of schools. In return, all he wants is for the rooms in which the computers reside to be available out of school hours as commercial training centres.

Is this man a latter-day Albert Schweitzer? The Father Theresa of technology? A future Nobel prize- winner for sheer generosity? Not exactly. In his own words, "We're a public company interested in maximising shares for our shareholders. What we're involved in is a win-win situation: the schools get high-quality multimedia and we deliver services just like any other commercial training centre."

The prototype for this project is based at Queens' School in Bushey, Hertfordshire. Head of information technology Mac Hazell calls the school a guinea pig. The Link room, named after CRT's subsidiary, Link Training, of which this is a part, is kitted out with 16 multimedia PCs and is managed by a Link organiser who loads the machines, deals with any problems the class teacher may have and helps children out when they ask. The school has had educational CD-Roms 16 copies of each, one for each child on each machine paid for by CRT for the purposes of the project.

While half the students work on the machines under the supervision of the teacher and Link organiser, the rest of the class sits and gets on with books and worksheets specially developed to complement the CD-Roms. At half-time, they swap over.

Mac Hazell's plan is to give every child in the school the experience of working in the Link room on the machines. To this end, he is having consultations with all the heads of department to listen to their needs, show them the relevant CD-Roms that are on offer and, when necessary, encourage those who wouldn't ordinarily be using multimedia to try it out. Hazell is keen to buy in appropriate national curriculum material rather than use what's dropped from heaven as manna what he calls the considerable amount of rubbish passing as educational CD software.

While Queens' School irons out the kinks in its Link down in Hertfordshire (where another four schools are expected to join the project after Easter), Merseyside is poised to host a multimedia extravaganza that goes by the name of MESH. Though it sounds like something out of an old James Bond movie, it's actually an acronym for the Merseyside Education Superhighway. And it's phase one of Karl Chapman's masterplan.

Key players in a complex partnership are CRT's Link Training, Liverpool local authority secondary and special schools and John Moores University. Thanks to Brussels awarding Merseyside Objective One status which means that because it's as depressed as Naples, money is available for special grants Liverpool launched its City of Learning initiative.

This is a broad-based partnership of public and private sectors to provide a strategic framework to develop learning activities. It has invited bids from educational institutions, which represent one of the biggest providers of jobs in the region. One of the bidders for City of Learning money was UNITED (Using New Technologies in Education), which led to the MESH project.

A confusing configuration of bedfellows? Yes, but the aim of MESH is pretty straightforward: to put Link multimedia learning centres into 35 schools across Merseyside in the next six months and connect them via a specially-developed network. This is Chapman's short-term plan. Long term, he wants to spread his multimedia superhighway nationally. And then who knows?

The project has been two years in the planning and doesn't just differ from the Hertfordshire model in scale. John Moores University's involvement is to produce educational software for use on the CD-Roms.

The materials, it is planned, will be marketed by CRT and available nationwide. So whereas the profits for CRT in Hertfordshire are confined to revenue generated through training, the MESH model will involve educational software publishing and sales.

One observer of the project points out possible hiccups ahead with a marriage of two very different worlds. "While the development of educational materials is characterised by its hiccups, its peaks and its troughs, the commercial world wants immediate big sellers. There are bound to be arguments on the nature of materials."

There is also a technological problem. According to Peter Fowler of John Moores' Learning Methods Unit, "software that is currently being produced for CD-Roms is not networkable at the moment. It's quite hard to do".

The application of these materials, in making the technology of sound pedagogic content, is another consideration that educationists in Merseyside are discussing. Tensions are expected between those interested in education and those interested in making a profit, according to one educationist. Teachers are not easily impressed with sparklingly new hardware, and many are disenchanted with some of the "education" CD-Roms produced so far. They want to know that working with computers will enhance classroom teaching. Techno-gimmickry has no place in a highly-pressurised timetable.

These are issues that Peter Fowler takes seriously: "We're working out what applications of the new technologies in education are going to look like. Our vision is critical. And it drives our interest."

As for Karl Chapman, he is confident that lessons have been learned at Queens' about classroom use of multimedia. "We've spent a long time since 1992 learning what we need to know about working in a learning environment. Our belief is that technology is only as good as the people operating it."

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