Spark, Scotland's proposed national schools intranet, will soon be out to tender and should be up and running by 2005. Linking schools across Scotland and featuring a huge educational content, Spark should aid communication and collaboration.
Indeed, it is hoped this ambitious scheme will promote collaboration and sharing to the point where teachers will simply not be able to do without Spark, says the Scottish Executive Education Department's broadband team leader, John Connell.
Most of Scotland's 32 local authorities now have broadband connections, courtesy of Ukerna (the body which maintains SuperJanet4, the UK's university network), with links to the school management system Seemis, the Scottish Qualifications Authority and Learning and Teaching Scotland, whose Spark unit will manage the intranet.
Mr Connell says: "The system is flying. We are ready to roll in terms of setting up the Spark learner environment alongside user directories, social software, a help desk and online training facilities, all of crucial importance and use to teachers and pupils. It's a complex package which will have to be delivered by a consortium, probably with one lead bidder."
Mr Connell, a former primary headteacher, hopes to see the contract signed by Christmas next year. Implementation will take about a year.
"With 750,000-800,000 users in Scotland, it'll be big enough to interest companies to provide it but small enough to be manageable. It will be a testing bed for these companies, who will be able to use the experience for larger markets," he says.
The Spark learner environment will provide teachers and pupils with tools to access and manipulate its educational content, to print, present or use it in ways they see fit.
This will automatically link to local authority tracking and monitoring mechanisms.
"It will cover the curriculum from nursery to Higher Still. Teachers will be able to access lesson plans posted by other teachers, Scran (the online Scottish cultural resource access network), the BBC or commercial companies and, within the bounds of copyright agreements, they will have the freedom to use them to their creative best."
Mr Connell says subject teachers could, for example, become part of a national community that manages itself and shares good practice through the intranet, from Shettleston to Shetland.
"Spark will identify and bring together pupils or teachers with similar interests or who are doing similar projects, so experience can be shared."
The "social software" side of the package refers to newsgroups, conferencing tools and chatrooms for teachers and pupils to collaborate online in a safe environment.
Pupils will be able to log on at home but the system will not give access to the Internet.
Access levels will be moderated for all stages, from five-year-olds to school inspectors and directors of education.
With every user having potentially their own password and personalised homepage, online communities such as Masterclass for teachers and Heads Together for headteachers should also be able to flourish.
Mr Connell believes Spark will also aid pastoral care as the local authority intranets will link to social and other services.
"In principle, this holistic access will surely aid looking after the whole child," he says.
John Connell will give an update on Spark - Scotland's National Schools Intranet on Wednesday at 3.15pm