Sucking money into information dumps;Platform;Opinion

15th May 1998 at 01:00
Wilson Flood is doubtful of wild promises about the National Grid for Learning

Amazing claims are being made for Information and Communications Technology (ICT) - or more precisely the National Grid for Learning - in the Government's paper Connecting the Learning Society. In fact, so much is claimed that the grid can do little but fall from grace once launched.

The paper says that by 2002, the next election year, the grid will "provide a national focus and agenda ... to raise educational standards and improve quality of life and Britain's international competitiveness". It will also "remove barriers to learning, ensuring opportunities for access for all". And just for good measure, it will "provide content and services which are relevant and differentiated according to needs".

We shall see. In the 1940s it was claimed that "the time will soon come when a portable radio receiver is as common in the classroom as the blackboard".

In 1922 Thomas Edison predicted the film strip would revolutionise schools and in a few years largely supplant textbooks.

No doubt in the early 16th century there were similar predictions of a Gutenberg press in the corner of every schoolroom.

The story now is that computers and the Internet are finally going to make books obsolete. A new society based on lifelong learning and constant updating will emerge.

Once again, we shall see.

According to the Government, by 2002 all 32,000 UK schools should be connected to the grid. There is "a clear expectation that the annual level of school expenditure on ICT from all sources would expand substantially".

There may even have to be "some reprioritisation of school budgets". In other words, ICT and the grid may become an educational black hole sucking in funding from every direction and leaving other areas of the curriculum impoverished.

This is already taking place in the United States, where in some districts art, music and physical education programmes are being cut to spend money on computers.

Apparently the grid will be divided into two broad domains. One part will be called the Teacher Centre, will be "free" and will concern itself with the professional activity of teachers.

It will provide information ranging from administrative matters to inspection reports, published curricula, and existing websites of bodies such as Scotland Consultative Council on the Curriculum.

This is typical Internet stuff and will be a huge information dump. Unless you have a specific address that you know contains the information you need you could spend hours sifting through it and find little of any use - otherwise known as "surfing the Net".

The other part will contain the curricular materials for the learners themselves. Unfortunately this will only be developed in the "longer term" - in Government speak this could mean in a very limited way or not at all.

Access will be on a subscription basis. Schools and local authorities would subscribe to the service, so enough material would have to be commissioned and in place to justify the subscription.

It would also have to be good value for money, since schools are very demanding customers and do not part readily with hard cash. The Government may therefore subsidise subscriptions for the first few years until things are up and running.

This part of the grid is envisaged as a publicprivate partnership. What is referred to as a "Challenge" will be issued this year in order to trigger the development of competing managed services to which schools or education authorities would subscribe.

These managed services would be provided by consortia which would be kitemarked as approved suppliers to the grid. Anyone wishing to provide material for the grid would have to market their product to these consortia. There is therefore the possibility of agencies which take raw curriculum material and develop it into a form acceptable to these consortia.

From a Scottish perspective, it is important that practising teachers and educationists should be able to contribute Scottish curriculum materials to the grid. But there is the chance that much of it will be produced by companies such as ICI or BT.

Other aspects of the grid can be delivered easily and could be useful. Allocating e-mail addresses to all and sundry is straightforward. So is organising communication and the collection of data between schools, the Scottish Office and the Scottish Qualifications Authority.

As always there is a downside. Schools and teachers should prepare themselves for a deluge of e-mails from concerned parents and active school board members.

One sixth former in England extolled the virtues of e-mail by pointing out that he could now send his projects direct to the teacher's e-mail address at home.

The potential of ICT to enhance learning will be as great as the imagination and skill of the teacher using it. But the problem with ICT is that it is constantly developing, so regular updating of skills and knowledge is needed.

A recent survey of teachers found that only 20 per cent felt they had the confidence to use ICT in the classroom. Large numbers said they needed training in areas such as file management and using the Internet.

By my calculations, to do it properly in Scotland about 32,000 teachers will require roughly one week's training by 2002. Presumably this will be delivered by the 8000 or so anoraks who are already wired. There must also be a built in capability for regular and continual updating.

This will represent a major undertaking. A lot of pound notes will have to flow under the bridge before the grid is fully operational.

Wilson Flood, a former science advisor, is an educational consultant and writer

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