Return of the frontier spirit

9th January 1998 at 00:00
THE INTERNET is littered with stories about the exploits of schools in the United States during NetDays, the US's voluntary movement to connect schools to each other and the world. Ralston Middle School, in Belmont, California, is typical.

Its Net page describes the hectic day last September when the technology task force, made up of staff, parents and pupils, began to work out details for creating a local area network that would connect to a bigger network of schools over a wider area. The sense of community fostered was one of the project's most attractive aspects. The people of Ralston worked together to install equipment and put their schools on the Internet - a flowering of the pioneer spirit, inspired by a new frontier: cyberspace.

In Britain, instead of NetDays 1998 has been designated UK NetYear. David Wimpress, of ICL Education and Consultancy, who is heading the project, says: "The mission of UK NetYear is to assist schools to acquire and use modern information technology to support the Government's vision of the national grid for learning. There are obstacles in the way of the grid becoming a reality, some financial and some technological. We are going to confront as many of those issues as possible. There are 450,000 teachers who trained when ICT was not part of the curriculum."

NetYear's budget is underpinned by its founders: ICL, Cisco, Sun Microsystems and The Daily Telegraph. Several other companies are taking part as sponsors, including Xemplar and RM. Strangely enough, Britain's biggest telecoms company, BT, has declined to take part, saying that it already sponsors many education projects.

Brendan O'Sullivan, the managing director of Xemplar, says the initiative accords with government thinking. "It is a good kick-start for the national grid for learning. We are delighted to be involved with the steering group. The time is right, and it gives the network a greater chance of becoming a reality."

Mr Wimpress anticipates that it will be 18 months before the learning grid gets going. "If nothing happens between now and then we will be confronted by disoriented and resistant teachers. With Net-Year, hopefully, we will have a cadre of teachers who will have learnt the fundamentals of technology about the Inter-net, about how to use it as a learning re-source. They will understand how to control material that comes into the school. We hope, as well, to raise about Pounds 10 million for schools with particular problems.

The British Educational Suppliers Association (BESA), the organisation that represents most of the companies that supply schools with hardware and software, is the "honest broker" for UK NetYear. It has provided a comprehensive buyer's guide for schools, listing members' products and services available to schools at cut prices. More than that, it explains the technologies in layman's terms and explains how schools can formulate strategies for information and communications technology (ICT) and go about organising volunteers and sponsors in their local communities.

Initially, schools will be invited to register their interest in NetYear. They will then receive a guide on how to create an ICT policy and how to take it further. In addition, there will be a CD-Rom with the first of two training programmes: 33,000 will be sent at no cost to schools. The second wave of training will come from the BBC in a version of its programme Computers Don't Bite. Schools can also register at the official UK NetYear Web site; they will then be sent the CD-Rom and the BESA buyer's guide.

UK NetYear aims to point assistance and sponsorship in the direction of schools ready either to take their first step on the ICT ladder or to develop more sophisticated applications. "Never have so many influential players in the educational market come to-gether offering consensus advice and competitive products," says the British Educational Suppliers Association's chief executive, Dominic Savage.

One danger is that schools could feel patronised by people from industry. Some schools already have a better understanding of ICT than many in industry, but on the other hand there are sectors of business where ICT use is highly developed, particularly in administration - schools could learn from that.

Another danger is the confusion that comes from a lack of understanding about the role of ICT in enhancing learning: the ability to use Microsoft Office does not mean that it will help a teacher in the classroom. But the most serious danger is that business rivals might fail to bury their mutual suspicion for the greater good of schools.

Mr Wimpress says: "Everyone taking part has a social conscience. The grid will be a vital part of the future of this country. Enlightened self-interest is the best way to describe our motives. We will not make any serious money out of UK NetYear. If our work is not done, the national grid for learning will be a year or 18 months slower."

UK NetYear, Beaumont, Old Windsor, Berks SL4 2JP. Fax: 01753 604208.Web site: http:uknetyear.org.uk.

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