New wave learning

16th January 1998 at 00:00
This year marks the beginning of a new wave of computing in education. With a + Government committed to raising the profile of information and communications + technology (ICT) in schools, the rise of the Internet, and the growing + importance of networked computing, profound changes are in the air. Terms like + the Internet, the information superhighway and the national grid for learning + have moved into mainstream vocabulary. The momentum for a wired-up educational + world seems to be increasing.Students of the future may no longer use computers+ with hard discs stuffed full of programs, but get all the data they need from + a central computer. The computer supplying the data could be on the school + premises or even halfway across the world. This is no fanciful scenario: some + schools have already moved down this road (see page 12). The Government clearly+ sees networks such as the Internet playing a greater role in education, + especially in teacher support and training: at the BETT '98 technology show in + Olympia this week, David Blunkett, the Secretary of State for Education, is + expected to announce the launch of a pilot national database of best practice, + to be sited on the Internet. The aim will be to raise standards and cover areas+ such as target-setting, literacy and numeracy. Also expect a revamp for the + National Council for Educational Technology with a focus on the learning grid + and curriculum support for teachers, and probably a new name.The government's + consultative paper Connecting the Learning Society set out its aim to have + Britain's 32,000 schools linked up to the Internet by the year 2002. More than + 400 responses have been received, many of them positive. Extra money has been + found for setting up the national grid, and schools and local authorities are + now waiting to see if their bids for the #163;100 million funding announced at+ the launch of the learning grid have been successful.The Internet continues to+ grow as an educational resource. UK NetYear, an independen t initiative, aims + to help to get as many schools linked up to the Internet as possible. And this + year, the Net@BETT area will include an Internet Training Centre, offering + training sessions from various companies and professional associations.It is + estimated that around 6,000 schools are connected to the Internet, but this + number looks set to increase significant ly this year. A number of local + authority and school consortia have already decided to put their surf boards in+ the water and ride the new wave of information and communications technology. + Dudley Metropolitan Borough Council will contract out its entire ICT programme + under the Government's Public Private Partnership. Various consortia, which + include BT, RM, ICL and Xemplar, have bid for a contract that could be worth + #163;50 million over 10 years. MEON, the Merseyside Education Online Network, + links 10 secondary schools and two adult education centres together. ICL has + won a #163;77 million contract to manage the MEON network and offer various + forms of support over the next five years.The Staffordshire Learning Net (SLN) + is an authority-wide initiative that connects 400 schools and other educational+ institutions to each other and to the Internet. The funding comes from + delegated budgets and sponsorship from BT and RM.The government clearly wants + to see business playing a greater role in education and its move to expand ICT + in schools is a challenge to which industry must now respond. Partnerships + between education and industry can be fruitful, but as more schools hand their + ICT programmes over to private consortia, questions will have to be asked about+ the impact of this power sharing. Managed services could be a boon for + education, but the danger is that we end up with several large consortia + monopolising the ICT market. Hardware and software companies outside the + consortia should also have free and open access to schools. There needs to be + thought about the part local authorities can play - local input and influence + are essential.It is easy to get excited about initiatives such as the national + grid for learning, but the reality is that we are still some way off a wired + educational world. Although the Government has pledged many millions of pounds + in extra funding, it is plainly still not enough. Many schools are using old, + obsolete and inadequate hardware and software, and far too many teachers still + lack sufficient ICT skills - or the time to develop them. An Ofsted report on + English schools for the year 19956 found that in both the primary and + secondary sectors, many schools were poorly resourced and a large number of + teachers were poorly trained in ICT.It's worth noting that the Govern-ment's + plan to use mid-week lottery money for ICT staff development does not come into+ force until 1999. It is generally accepted that teachers gain greater + confidence in ICT when they have their own computer, but despite the many calls+ for tax breaks for teachers to acquire ICT equipment, the DFEE has yet to + discuss this issue with the Treasury (see Kim Howells interview, page + 10).Another problem is that schools require faster and more reliable + networks,particularly when using the Internet, which can be slow and clunky - + some wags have dubbed the World Wide Web, the World Wide Wait. BT now offers + schools fixed rates for ISDN digital lines, with some strings attached, and + some cable companies are offering packages which allow schools to have all the + Internet they can for an annual fee. But far too many schools still have slow, + dial-up connections and there is anxiety about the size of their phone bills. + We also need to be sure about what we want to do with this technology - and + that no one gets left behind through lack of access, resources or opportunity. + One of the most significant arrivals at BETT this year could be the network + computer (NC). This relatively simple box of electronics (see page 12) has the + potential to replace most classroom PCs and thus reduce both the cost and + management time of ICT systems in schools. The jury is still out on the NC, but+ a trip to Xemplar's stand (214, 440, SN9), which will demonstrate NCs in + action, should be considered by anyone looking to get the most out of their ICT+ budget.A portable computing revolution has been promised for a long time, but + many have often failed to deliver the goods when it comes to cost, weight or + performance. But Xemplar's Apple eMate 300 (pictured above) and the arrival of + handheld PCs using Microsoft's Windows could change the picture.Xemplar's Apple+ eMate 300 (see page 40) is a notebook which is light enough (4lb) for a school+ bag, strong enough to withstand being dropped, uses a matching green pen + instead of a mouse for selecting, drawing and writing on its touch-screen, and + could replace exercise books, pens and calculators. The eMate, which is based + on Apple's Newton MessagePad hand-held computers, runs on a rechargeable + battery that lasts for 24 hours - equivalent to about a week's worth of use in + school. It has no disc drives; work is automatically saved in the memory and + once you have finished working you can connect a cable and transfer data to an + Apple Macintosh, Windows PC or Acorn, or "beam" it over using its infrared + capability.The eMate is heavily tipped to win an Educational Computing and + Technology award at this year's Bett show - it has already won awards from + MacUser as the educational product of the year for its suitability for + schools.Although the focus on this year's BETT show will be on networked + computing, don't forget that it is not a panacea, and that other forms of ICT + are still being widely used in classrooms around the country, such as CD-Roms, + multimedia, control technology and the vast amount of excellent software still + available on floppy disc. And there is always plenty of genuine innovation - + like Sharedware, Chase Advanced Technologies' astonishing system for doubling + up PCs so that two students can use the same Windows 95 PC simultaneously for + different purposes (Hugh Symons, stand 462).That said, ICT and education are in+ for some very interesting times ahead,and BETT '98 could well prove to be the + catalyst for many new developments.

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