Must admit, it's getting BETTer

7th January 2000 at 00:00
Let's be brutally honest. The turn of the millennium was just another set of days starting another set of years, with the same set of problems to face. The challenge is to come up with solutions.

But if you had to pick the most significant time in the development of information and communications technology (ICT) in education, this would be it. We have a Government determined to connect schools to the global networks and use technology to drive up standards, coupled with the biggest teacher training scheme of the last century. Despite its problems, the initiative is tremendously exciting and very welcome. The fruits so far will be on show at BETT 2000, education's technology showcase at Olympia in London next week.

Technology is no longer the problem it was when Kenneth Baker, then minister for information technology, funded the first computers for schools in the Eighties. Thankfully the focus is now on learning. And connection to the Internet is opening up new worlds for all of us. Better still, the people you meet on the Net sometimes actually walk through the door - like Violet Madingoane. Responsible for bringing ICT to schools in the South African township of Soweto, she has juggled limited resources to enrich the lives of students and teachers in her community, and the Birmingham schools they have been working with (see page 10). Projects like hers need and deserve support.

As schools start getting their National Grid for Learning equipment and training, it is reassuring to see there is a real strategy behind the investment. The central "keeper" of the Grid is the British Educational Communications and Technology Agency (BECTA). It has defined three prongs to ICT development: infrastructure; content; teacher training.

One priority for infrastructure should be for the Government to break the telecom monopoly and drive down the cost of connection (see page 16). The policy of developing managed services, where companies run school technology to free teachers to teach, is persuasive and the only real criticism so far is of unnecessary bureaucracy, something that shouldn't be dfficult to sort out. A danger is of schools being expected to adapt to the new systems, rather than the other way around.

This can limit creativity, a key element in using computers, as Professor Stephen Heppell points out (see page 12). There is also a danger of a new kind of orthodoxy - a sort of revenge of the nerds - as some systems people force schools down the Windows PC route. Apple has some particularly effective, colourful offerings to brighten the sea of vanilla PCs.

The market is driving content development, although it could do with support and direction, but teacher education is the crucial issue, and it needs firm control. Teachers are still largely unaware of the Lottery-funded training scheme, but they need more information about it if schools are to make informed choices about training providers (see page 4). And it's just as important for the providers. It will be disastrous if we get to a stage where some have cleaned up the market at the expense of smaller, but equally valuable, trainers - particularly when we are talking about pound;230 million of public money. Fairness must rule.

Teachers are a key element that has been rather neglected in these major developments. BECTA's Niel McLean will be putting their case in his TES keynote speech at BETT next Friday. If you are self-employed you can claim your computer against tax. Not teachers. If company representatives need laptops do they have to buy their own? Not likely.

So why should teachers? (See today's TES Friday magazine.) Plans to help them buy computers are very welcome but let's hope they go far enough. There is talk of a "substantial" increase to the pound;200 expected to be offered. An announcement at next week's BETT 2000 show would be a huge boost.

With the technology changing so fast, a visit to our stand at BETT will show you the way we are evolving, too, with our comprehensive TES website (see page 6) and Learnfree web service for parents (see page 55). At Online we are celebrating our second birthday with our biggest-ever issue, so it's a big thank you to all our readers and contributors.

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