The biggest educational computing show on the calendar is here again. It's a chance to keep abreast of the massive changes stimulated by the learning grid, writes George Cole.
Whichever way you look at it, 1999 will be a significant year for technology in education. The National Grid for Learning will evolve from a prototype network to an important educational resource and communications medium; the drive to train Britain's 450,000 teachers in ICT starts in earnest; and the first Government-approved "managed service" providers will be announced. And the Government's pound;1 billion programme (including 50 per cent matched funding from local authorities) is a serious commitment. One thing is certain: the BETT show at Olympia is an event that should not be missed.
Alan Stevens, vice-principal of Sawtry Community College, Cambridgeshire, says that all of his 90 teaching staff will visit BETT'99 as one of their training days - it is regarded as thatimportant.
BETT'99 is a good place to find out where schools are going, so it's timely to look at the progress made so far. Around 12,000 of the UK's 32,000 schools are believed to have Internet connections, although many of these are single-machine, dial-up connections. Many schools are signing up to ISDN digital telephone deals which give fixed annual charges for Internet connections - although some believe that ISDN is already insufficient.
David Wimpress, managing director of education for ICL and executive director of the now defunct UK Netyear, says it has been a "cracking" year in terms of schools responses to the initiative to help them link up to the Internet. More than 10,000 schools registered and initiatives such as free email from Excite, a free single-user connection from AOL, and various Internet activities have proved popular. Insiders are warning against signing up for free email just yet however, as a major national scheme is expected in the spring (read the runes at BETT).
Many schools are using the Internet in bold and imaginative ways. The Whitehouse Primary School in Bristol, for example, uses email to communicate with schools in Tanzania, Malaysia and Brunei. "The students have been sharing everyday experiences, such as what the weather is like and how they travel to school," says Sally Mlewa, the school's acting headteacher.
Schools have found the Internet rich in resources and some have even created intranets - internal networks based on Internet technology. Alan Stevens at Sawtry says: "We encourage staff to do their research on the Net and then download materials on to our intranet."
At BETT, consultants Sparrowhawk and Heald will show Web Wizard, information that has been downloaded from the Internet and edited before going on to a CD-Rom. "There are still many questions for teachers, like 'How do I do it, and what will it cost?'" says Estelle Attenborough, Sparrowhawk's publishing manager. "Putting Web material on a CD-Rom that has its own browser and using it for exploring the Internet helps get around these problems."
Schools Direct will show Worksheets Online, a service allowing teachers to view, select and download photocopiable worksheets at 25p each. The company will also show the Cyber School series, photocopiable books containing Web addresses linked to questions.
The grid is more than just the Internet of course, and there are high hopes that schools will use it to share resources, ideas and experiences. Andre Wagstaffe, grid liaison manager at the British Educational and Communications Technology Agency (BECTA), says the grid will be what schools put into it, and that the signs so far are that it will work. Mark East, Microsoft's UK education group manager, says that reports from people using the Teacher Grid site (set up by Microsoft, BT and RM) show that teachers are attracted by the idea of sharing materials and experiences.
chools should be thinking about the long term, says Mary Marsh, head of Holland Park school in London. "The NGFL funding is a short-term boost but there are long-term issues on sustaining the investment for ICT when the money runs out. It is going to put a lot of pressure on school budgets."
Since last year's BETT show, the Windows PC platform has continued its rise. A British Educational Suppliers Association survey found that 89 per cent of all new school computers will be Windows PCs, and that the PC platform accounts for 60 per cent of schoolcomputers.
The news that Acorn will no longer supply computers marks the end of and era, and has forced many schools to rethink their ICT policies, although Xemplar continues to support Apple and PC machines.
"There will still be Acorn equipment at BETT in the form of network computers, and our Windows PC Toolbox gives schools moving to the PC platform the comfort of using many familiar Acorn software titles," says Nick Evans, Xemplar's head of marketing. "And we can help schools wishing to transfer data from Acorn to PC."
However, the PC is not the only option and Xemplar will also be showing the popular Apple iMac, which has been designed for networking and Internet connection. Since its UK launch in September last year, the iMac has even shown signs of reversing the drift to Windows.
That so many schools are using PCs to link up to the Internet concerns Mark Denne, director of New Vision, which helped St Sebastian's School in Wokingham to set up a networked Internet connection using network computers (which do not have a hard disk). "I worry about the backlash that could happen by using PCs. Many primary schools don't have IT-skilled teaching staff and it could be a nightmare coping with PC technology.
"Teachers should be free to get on with teaching rather than having extra responsibilities like administering networks." One answer could be using "managed services", whereby schools contract out their ICT system to a company that will handle hardware, software, installation, management andsupport.
The Department for Education and Employment is keen to promote managed services and its thinking is set out in the document Open for Learning, Open for Business. A number of schools and authorities have already gone down this route, and companies such as Hewlett-Packard and RM have already been awarded contracts. Some, however, would like to see greater competition for contracts.
The department plans to announce approved managed service suppliers this summer. Xemplar's Nick Evans says schools should be careful about who they do business with, as the extra cash going into education will tempt many:
"See whether the company you're talking to knows what you're talking about. If their eyes glaze over when you mention terms like key stage 2, go elsewhere. There are always choices open to schools."
Some would also like to see the DFEE promoting faster Internet connections in schools. Adrian Carey of Edex, the educational Internet company, says:
"The Government should have the vision of a national network for schools with high-speed connections." Microsoft's Mark East agrees: "ISDN is not really fast enough for some applications. Telecoms companies should offer more bandwith (capacity)."
The Teacher Training Agency will soon announce a list of approved organisations for training teachers to use technology in class, but some believe that the plans are flawed because they do not go far enough. Microsoft, for example, plans to set up 100 accredited learning centres, for teachers to get hands-on experience of educational software, something that Bill Gates's company believes may not happen under existing plans.
ontent will be king on the learning grid, but one software supplier, Lesley Ovens, educational sales director of Ablac, says: "I'm amazed at how little attention has been spent on content. It is like spending a lot of money on a fantastic car only to find you cannot afford the petrol to run it."
Whatreally matters is that the grid is a source of good content, hence the talk of "kitemarking" software. Groups such as the Parents Information Network (PIN) and Teachers Evaluating Educational Multimedia (TEEM) are developing kitemark schemes.
But many software companies are cool about the whole idea. "It's difficult to come up with criteria that are fair and flexible," says Nigel Ward, managing director of Granada Learning. "It's the wrong solution for the right diagnosis. We all know that there isn't enough good content out there, and that teachers need help in using the software. But will kitemarking improve this? We don't kitemark books."
Mark East is also unenthusiastic: "There are packaging considerations too. We produce packaging for a worldwide market, so it's not practical to develop packaging for a specific country. Even if we won a kitemark, I doubt that we'd use it." Whatever the issues, Bill Bonham, Sherston Software's educational director, says multimedia software sales are still healthy despite all the attention given to the grid. "Delivering software down the NGFL isn't viable at present due to bandwith problems," he says.
Of course, other questions remain unresolved. Adrian Carey says the examination and assessment system must be altered to take into the account the importance of technology. Otherwise what motivation is there for teachers to use ICT with their students? Getting them through the exams will remain the priority. "Unless this happens, no one will take ICT seriously," he says.
And ICL's David Wimpress believes that winning the hearts and minds of headteachers is important too: "If your children go to a school where the head is not tuned into ICT, they will be at a disadvantage. The Government's extra resources are welcome, but teacher attitudes are just as important."
* BETT SEMINARS
They are informative, stimulating and entertaining, according to Barbara Brookes, a director of Educational Exhibitions, which organises the seminar programme at BETT.
"ICT has moved on a lot since we first launched the seminars seven years ago, she says. "More and more people are using technology in the classroom. That's why we offer a mix of seminars aimed at both non-specialists and those looking for new developments."
The seminars - covering different topics in three separate rooms - run on all four days of the educational technology show, from next Wednesday (January 13) until Saturday.
A good place to start is with the main speeches, all of which take place in Seminar Room A. On Wednesday at 1pm, Alastair Wells will give a talk sponsored by the British Educational Suppliers' Association called "The School's Role at the Centre of an OnLine Learning Community".
Thursday 11am sees Owen Lynch, chief executive of the British Educational Communications and Technology Agency, asking "Teaching and Learning for the Next Decade - Is ICT Indispensable? Is it Sustainable?" The talk is sponsored by 'The TES'.
Nigel Paine, chief executive of the Scottish Council for Educational Technology, will be looking at "Building Learning Communities" when he speaks on Friday at 11am.
Anthea Millett, chief executive of the Teacher Training Agency, is expected to reveal much about the TTA's thinking on ICT and teacher skills in her speech "ICT and the Future of the Teaching Profession".
There is also a rich variety of talks to interest everyone. If you are in further education, there are seminars virtually all day on the sector on Wednesday. Special needs are concentrated mainly on Wednesday and Thursday.
The Parents Information Network will look at family learning on Thursday at 3.30pm, the British Dyslexia Association will explore voice recognition technology on Wednesday at 12pm and the Music Association of Great Britain will talk about using computers to teach music on Saturday at 11am.
The Geographical Association will be showing how the Internet can aid geography teaching on Friday at 1.30pm, and Mike Rumble of NAACE, the computer advisers' association, will be discussing how teachers use ICT on Friday at 2pm.
On Saturday at 1.30pm, Roger Frost, science expert, 'TES' reviewer and author of the acclaimed book 'IT in Primary Science' (a finalist in this year's BETT awards) will be demonstrating examplesof good software.
Do not forget to take a good look at the seminar programme - the full details are on page 71. You will be surprised and delighted by what is there.