Revolution coming north of the border

3rd January 1997 at 00:00
Nigel Paine has pledged every Scottish school will be linked to the Net by the end of 1997. Dick Louden asks how he will deliver.

Nigel Paine, chief executive of the Scottish Council for Educational Technology (SCET), becomes animated whenever he talks about the Internet. "It will revolutionise the world we live in," he claims. "It offers teachers and pupils colourful, interactive and exciting resources beyond their wildest dreams. It provides access to imaginative materials which span the entire curriculum."

In support of his assertion, he is making two new pledges. The first is that by the end of 1997, the council and a few partners - mainly from the college and university sectors - will have made 5,000 Scottish teachers and lecturers ready to use the Internet. The second is to work with cable companies and telecommunications providers to give free Web pages and e-mail addresses to all educational establishments. "Scotland will be 100 per cent wired during 1997," he promises.

"Only a basic level of computer literacy is required," he says. "The training will be in eight or 10 small units amounting in total to the equivalent of one or two full days, with periods of practice in between. Our pricing policy will be sensible. We shall charge the cheapest possible rate. Economies of scale will help us achieve that."

Within two or three years all Scottish teachers could well be using the Internet. The courses which the council and its partners are devising will not be about familiarising teachers with new technology but about how to harness the potential of the Internet. "It is like a library with all its books scattered on the floor," Nigel Paine explains. "Teachers will be wondering where on earth to start. We shall advise them how to find their way around the enormous resources on the Internet and how to make things fit."

For that reason the training will be subject-based, with teachers being shown how to locate and deploy the materials which relate to their own curricular interest.

For primary teachers, there is a huge mass of material encompassing the full breadth of Scotland's national 5-14 curriculum, but obviously the initial courses, in a brief time-span, will not attempt to achieve such ambitious coverage.

There is no doubt that SCET is deeply into the business of spreading the Internet gospel. "I genuinely believe that information is fast becoming our fifth utility," Nigel Paine says. "The irony is that we will only know that the Internet has been a success when absolutely no one talks about it - when it is taken completely for granted and we just plug into it and the only time we complain is when it is not available for some reason."

His second pledge - free Web pages and free e-mail addresses - appears an awesome commitment. How is it to be achieved?

"We have come to an understanding with major cable companies like CableTel and TeleWest. We shall go wherever they aren't."

In other words, the cable companies are not planning full geographical coverage. Especially in rural areas, some schools have nothing more in the way of advanced technology than a desktop computer or perhaps even a telephone. In such cases SCET will move in to fill the gap.

"We shall act as the host agency by setting up home pages for schools on our own server," Nigel Paine explains. "This will offer them relatively limited exposure on the Internet, in some cases perhaps only a few minutes a week. However, this will enable them to have information collected and distributed by us on their behalf and to send and receive e-mail."

Though no charge will be levied, the council obviously hopes that it can attract some income by selling software to those schools which wish to go further down the road by becoming more wired up and establishing their own pages on the Internet. "The more wired up they are, the better," Nigel Paine maintains. "It is all about creating virtual communities."

Since the cable companies are operating a rolling programme of area installations which will not be completed until 1999, the council has to cope with more than the challenge of what Nigel Paine calls "permanent infill" for those remote districts which will remain untouched by the cable revolution. It also intends to provide temporary infill on a similar basis for schools in more populated areas which will not become linked to the cable network for a while yet.

In this fashion Scotland could indeed become 100 per cent wired during 1997. Nigel Paine emphasises that he is talking about further education colleges as well as schools. He anticipates a high level of interest from FE lecturers in becoming Internet ready. SCET's committed push towards saturation coverage is all the more impressive, coming from an organisation which only two years ago was not itself wired to the Internet.

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