Listen, learn, dissolve

11th June 1999 at 01:00
Jack Kenny hears how advocates of ICT can learn from their foreign colleagues

Cold comfort it may be, but practitioners in information and communications technology (ICT) in education can reassure themselves with one fact - that colleagues worldwide are vexed by the same problems. For although speakers at the "Dissolving Barriers" conference in Dublin Castle discussed, among other issues, public-private sector partnerships and the quality of software and multimedia in their own countries, the thrust of last month's debate was familiar to all present.

The conference, which attracted delegates from 20 countries, was organised by the Department for Education and Employment, and Ireland's Department of Education and Science with the Department of Education in Northern Ireland, and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. Charles Clarke, School Standards Minister, and Eire's education and science minister, Michael Martin, confirmed both governments' commitment to ICT. Then it was over to Linda Roberts, director of the US Office of Educational Technology and special adviser to the US education secretary. She spoke frankly about the problems of large-scale work, explaining that America's federal structure made government initiatives difficult to pull off.

But she also detailed the country's progress in cabling up not just every school, but every classroom. In 1994, 3 per cent of classrooms were connected, but by last year the figure had soared to 51 per cent. "You have to bring the technology to where the teaching is," Roberts argued, confident that all classrooms would be connected by next year. And she brushed aside fears that the incoming technology would cost jobs: "Any teacher who thinks a teacher can be replaced by technology ought to be replaced."

The increasing sums of money the US is investing in IT and learning are mirrored across the globe. And the evidence that such investment was worthwhile, argued Roberts, would come not from one country, but from many, and could help communities around the world persuade politicians of ICT's value.

Owen Lynch, chief executive of the British Educational Communications and Technology Agency (BECTA), surveyed the UK scene with a mixture of optimism and realism. He called for systemic change in the way schools used ICT and believed the National Grid for Learning, for which BECTA is responsible, was helping to break down barriers , such as that between school and home.

However, he stressed that the grid should be interactive: "If the teacher or the pupil, the parent or the adult student experiences a grid that is a one-way megaphone system, it will wither on its own grandeur."

It fell to Northern Ireland's Tom McMullan, one of the province's fiercest public sector negotiators, to add the spice of controversy to the conference. Past McMullan triumphs include the CLASS project, in which he succeeded in getting schools to work across the Catholic-Protestant divide. Now he will direct procurement in the Classroom 2000 project, a private finance initiative that will pass to the private sector most of the risk of ICT and all of its management.

The project covers all 1,300 schools in Northern Ireland and will see the Government hand over ICT's curriculum, administration and connectivity in a 10 to 15-year managed service. The contract will be awarded later this year and will be the largest in UK education, worth more than pound;250 million over the service period.

Just as interesting as McMullan's presentation was the reaction of delegates to it. Those from former Eastern bloc countries voiced concern about the central control; others worried about software houses being able to find a niche within the managed service.

At a major conference the smaller countries often make the biggest impact. Enel Magi, of Estonia, described the Tiger Leap programme, which promotes the use of ICT in Estonian schools. And she raised a laugh among delegates with her characterisation of teachers and their attitudes to ICT: there are the "how-much-will-it-cost people" who mask their wariness of ICT with concern about its cost, and then there are the technophiles who are so enamoured with ICT they use it for everything.

Most intriguing was her "blue, white and black, barn swallow people" (the barn swallow is Estonia's national bird and blue, white and black are the colours of the nation's flag) who resist everything that comes from outside Estonia - especially if it does not suit them.

Magi's Estonian barn swallow has its equivalent in all countries. But the forte of ICT is the ease and speed at which it can communicate information and ideas, and it is so efficient in this role that it can dissolve traditional barriers. Whether delegates can similarly learn from each other and so solve their problems will be its real test.

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