Space to compete

11th February 2000 at 00:00
Speed of data exchange will sort the men from the boys. In the goods and services offered game, the learning grid must be able to play at full capacity in every sector says Nigel Paine

Wired magazine's Encyclopedia of the New Economy defines bandwidth as: "A network's carrying capacity, rarely sufficient." This little word, bandwidth, which used to refer exclusively to radio spectrum is now more commonly used to describe how much data can be exchanged between computers and at what speed and, ultimately, what kind of information, goods and services can be exchanged online. It is at the core of how the Internet will ultimately deliver services into homes, between businesses and therefore into education.

What do those clever clogs from Wired magazine mean by "rarely sufficient"? Does it take a sideways swipe at all those billions of pounds invested in National Grid for Learning ( NGFL) infrastructure, implying that there will never be enough bandwidth to do what we want? Millions of pounds worth of dog chasing even more millions of pounds worth of tail? Are we wasting our money on a futile hunt for the elusive capacity to create a genuine national grid which will support learning opportunities when and how we want them; pouring our money out of "education", as such, and into the coffers of the ICT providers?

Yet Michael Wills the parliamentary under secretary of state at the DFEE in charge of learning and technology, recently made a public commitment at the ICT Industry Club to broadband Internet access in education. He argued cogently that if this was the direction for business, and maybe for the home as well, education could and should not be the lone sector still ploughing the ISDN and dial-up modem furrows.

So how do we reconcile the simple contradiction between the fact that broadband access to education needs expensive infrastructure investment, yet the benefits of that infrastructure have little to do with the actual wires in the ground and lots to do with the quality of goods and services offered? More investment in infrastructure means less in content when there is a finite pot of money. The dilemma we could face is wonderful infrastructure with nothing on it, or wonderful content that struggles to get around the system and then can only be used by the few rather than the many, in a rather shaky, hesitant, wait-around-for-it-to-download kind of way. An impossible choice.

Let me be bold, then, and put my cards on the table. We cannot realise the promise of the grid until we have a continuous process of leapfrogging for at least the next 10 to 15 years: capacity outshone by content, content challenged by new capacity. Bandwidth issues will be with us for the foreseeable future. What, however, in five years is a bandwidth issue will look to us today like profligate provision.

There is a law called Gilder's law, that is essentially the bandwidth equivalent of Moore's Law on chip processing power. It states that backbone (the main trunking system for data) capacity will triple annually for the next 25 years. While we dream in the UK of putting in two megabit "pipes" into schools, they are building the first two terabit backones in the US (like sending your local library across the world in one second).

These are awesome leaps, but what builds a backbone one year, pops up in the local school a few years later. The key is not to expect too much too soon, but to stay in the race. We are now at the network equivalent stage of accepting the fact that we have to upgrade our computers every few years to exploit new features. Very soon we must accept that every computer upgrade generates a network upgrade and vice versa. Just as our desktop computer is still not capable of doing all the things we would like to do with it in a classroom, our networks are still too clogged and slow for instant access to educational resources around the world.

So where is all this leading? Well ultimately (within two years) into a genuine education intranet or an education portal. This will include a unique desktop for every teacher that gives him or her personalised access to the content and resources necessary to do the job. A desktop that is configurable; two-way; allows person-to-person communication through video conference, synchronous and asynchronous messaging; and loads of information for the classroom.

Pie in the sky? I think not: these gateways are now available in many companies to help staff make sense and control the vast amount of information now stored and accessed on a daily basis by employees, customers and other stakeholders. Companies like Information Advantage and Plumtree Software are building the private equivalent of My Yahoo! or My Excite! These companies are desperate for you to make their front pages your home page. The difference is that what I am discussing is a private education space although it will use Internet protocols and be accessed through a Web browser and backed by massive databases of resources that can be called up instantly. It will hold data in all formats. It is all equal and each object is tagged, so complex cross-references are possible for the body of an item, not just its title.

If we develop content we have to store it; if we store it we have to make it accessible again; if we want teachers to use those resources we have to make them available in the simplest way possible so the focus and concentration is on use not access. All of this relies on an integrated virtual private network for schools to make it hang together and secure the actual learning grid for our learning grid.

It is only through this that ICT will transform teaching and learning. We need somewhere for teachers to congregate in a comfortable place, that will allow them to communicate with colleagues and collect resources for every corner of the curriculum and offer support to implement these changes. This requires a sophisticated network able to compete with the best in the private sector, and impressive storage to indicate what exists.

Broadband is not a technological step too far but a fundamental part of the thinking behind the learning grid so that however big our ideas, they will not run limp.

Nigel Paine is chief executive of the Technology Colleges Trust and formerly chief executive of the Scottish Council for Educational Technology.

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