Any place where people get together to sell is a market. And once you have worked out who sells what, and to whom, you have the picture. Except that a good market is much more than that. It is also an arena for exchanging ideas.
The annual BETT techology show (at Olympia, London, January 11-14) is just such a market. The sales floor provides honeypots for visitors with money and a desire to spend, and it serves the educational community. The seminar programme, for example, provides substantial, high-quality in-service training to those whose headteachers have the foresight to release them to attend the show.
BETT has its stalls, its punters, regulators, theorists, crackpots and occasional hard sellers with pound signs flashing in their eyes. But the people you see only fleetingly are those who actually steer it.
At BETT's official opening there is always a Minister for Education, this year Gillian Shephard. This brief appearance is one of the most important features of BETT it marks the annual announcement of government support funding and the pilot projects for IT in education, conducted by the National Council for Educational Technology on behalf of the Department for Education.
But behind the glitter of this year's show, there is concern about a drift in policy that could undermine what has been achieved by schools so far a combination of reduced government direction on IT funding, the rapid weakening of local authority IT support and a number of long-standing problems.
There is a feeling that now is the time to start developing a national strategy for IT in education that goes further than grants for educational support and training (GEST) and research projects. This could identify and target the weak areas to back up the successful GEST initiatives and the NCET projects (see page 4). An IT strategy which incorporates the lessons learnt from the successful projects launched each year at BETT, and which targets known weak sections in the IT in education jigsaw is well worth considering.
Before children can use computers in the ways prescribed by the curriculum, they need easy access to machines. This is still a problem in many schools. Everyone knows the importance of training and supporting teachers; but they also know that teacher education is extremely weak on IT. And there are other problems, like shortages of equipment, to be sorted before pupils can take up their "entitlement" to computers for the curriculum.
The NCET's role is crucial. In recent years, there has been much talk of finding "evidence" of the success of IT in education. Two NCET pilot projects looking at the use of portable computers, and at compact disc technology, CD-Rom have provided some of that proof, convincingly for most observers. And its current project, investigating the worth of integrated learning systems (page 6) is throwing up some very interesting findings, although seasoned observers warn against financial investment before the final results are known.
Other areas which need to be explored are links between home and school, as parents join the multimedia revolution; the Internet system of international computer networks; and the possibility of encouraging teachers to have their own computers, perhaps through a tax allowance scheme. There are many rich seams of research to be tapped.
The suggestion of a strategy for information technology in schools put forward by the National Association of Advisers for Computers in Education (NAACE) is timely and has substance. It should not be seen merely as part of the political struggle between central and local government. The participants in this area need to rise above petty politics to safeguard educational advances.
As the main players in educational IT rub shoulders at BETT, they would do well to explore NAACE's suggestion. It is not a call simply for centralisation, but for a clear purpose and direction for those market forces.
Merlin John Editor IT Review