A tower block on a grimy inner-city street might seem like an unlikely sight for a reincarnation, but something of that kind has happened at the University of North London with the arrival of the Learning Exchange. Almost all the staff of this new service previously worked at ILECC, the Inner London Educational Computing Centre, which closed in March.
Of course, ILECC hasn't been reborn, and the new centre offers only some of the services that were offered by that organisation, but London schools do now have a support and Inset organisation for IT once again.
Following the closure of ILECC, a group of ex-staff set up a company, the London Educational Technology Support Service, to provide computer maintenance and to sell ILECC software. The advisory and support staff, meanwhile, were made redundant, but now seven of them have been recruited by UNL, which had been planning to expand the IT services it offers to schools. The Learning Exchange now offers a varied programme of in-service training, in-class support and telephone and technical services.
The team has noticed changes in the kind of support that schools want. "Primary schools seem to be much more careful about their planning," says Ruth Allanach. "They don't just want us for a one-off session but, for example, eight days in one school, especially in schools where they have been locally managed for some time." The pressures of OFSTED inspection have also led to a change in the pattern of demand. "We've had two or three panicky calls from schools with OFSTED coming up."
Tony Parkin identifies one specific area where support for schools is only available from services such as the Learning Exchange. "Educational software developers used to support progressive versions, but now there are problems with running old software on new machines." The team found that companies tend to be very good at supporting new products; with older titles they tell schools to upgrade first.
All seven members of staff at the Learning Exchange are convinced of the benefits of basing the service at a university. As an ex-Polytechnic, UNL has experience of marketing which is invaluable for a newly-formed service. Ruth Allanach is also pleased that the team is part of the Department of Teaching Studies: "We have contributed to the teaching programme; each of us can support the other." There are technical advantages, too, from being based in higher education, where there is already considerable expertise in the fast-developing area of networking and the Internet system of international computer networks.
Recently appointed as programme director for in-service education at the University of North London, Jill Staley is clear on the benefits for UNL of an organisation like the Learning Exchange. "At the time that ILECC was closing, we were looking to diversify our Inset. We had done mostly accredited courses but we were now looking to offer different kinds of consultancy work and to build on new services and current strengths."
The university expects the Learning Exchange to be self-supporting but not profit-making. "The Learning Exchange has enabled us to offer a much more comprehensive service," says Jill Stacey. "The provision is more coherent in two ways: an improved offer to schools and a way of supporting schools' IT support and development needs. We don't see ourselves as in competition with the local authorities; we liaise and co-operate with them. We complement and enhance each other's work where necessary."
The developments at UNL will be watched closely by centres in other parts of the country. Although some authoritiess are still able to maintain their IT centres, others are looking to partnership models to continue the service, and it may be that the universities have a major role to play in this area. Other centres are talking to IT companies and others in the private sector, so it is likely that the Learning Exchange is only the first of the new-style support services to develop in the next few months.
The Learning Exchange can be contacted on 071-753 5092