Wake up to the revolution

23rd June 1995 at 01:00
This article began life on a palmtop computer on London Transport, was then streamed along a cable into a desktop computer where it was joined and transformed by more words and ideas pulled in from various computer networks and electronic mail (e-mail) systems. Finally, after consultation and correction involving more networking, it was laid out on a page in a desktop publishing program and sent via yet another computer network to a print centre to be inked on to this page before distribution to your newsagent.

And because this Computers Update is already digitised, it can be placed on the FT Profile database (within four days) where schools with Campus 2000 accounts can search it on-line. At some point these issues will also probably find a home on the Internet, on World Wide Web pages. Information is now mobile in a way that Caxton could only have dreamt of. And that information, as far as today's global networks are concerned, is not only in the form of text; sound, graphics and video are increasingly available.

Those of you still emotionally attached to pen and paper may think there is something artificial, or contrived, about this way of working. There isn't. Many schools already use identical technology (PsionAcorn palmtops, PCs, Macs and modems). What is remarkable is that so many people, including senior politicians, still regard it as unusual, or at least beyond their reach. Yet they don't have that attitude towards fax machines, which use virtually the same bag of tricks.

There are still people who think that the Internet system of global computer networks and the emerging information superhighway are hype. Wake up. If anything, the Internet is undersold because few people can grasp, let alone express, the vast implications of the communications revolution.

Internet Utopians see the developing networks as a space which will one day contain the sum total of human intellectual endeavour and experience. That may well be, but what is already there will suffice for a healthy start, as a glance at the curriculum pages in this issue shows (pages 11-19).

In computer circles these kinds of electronic collaborative working are known loosely as networking. They are activities that should happen as a matter of course in schools too: partly because the curriculum requires it, partly because it is quickly becoming more straightforward, but mostly because it can be genuinely exciting and empowering. These developments have major implications for teaching and learning, some of which are explored by US academic Alan Kay and British Telecom's research boss Peter Cochrane (pages 24-25) who advises that the teacher's role will switch from the "sage on the stage" to the "guide on the side".

The difficulty for schools is that while they are keen to get involved, there is a tragic lack of leadership and help at a national level. There is little communication between Government departments. When the Department of Trade and Industry was preparing to announce its plan to connect secondary schools to the Internet, the Department for Education was embarrassingly ignorant. And John Redwood's announcement of a project to connect Welsh primaries smacked of rivalry between ministries. A general election is on the way, education is a key issue and the Internet and superhighway are perceived as vote-winners.

The much-heralded consultation for an education superhighway by the DFE, launched by an impressive document, has that same curious lack of depth. What policy-forming executive will it report to? What matching consultations are other Government departments carrying out?

Teachers, parents and other voters are looking for policies. UK schools have taken part in many one-off IT projects, like using portable computers and CD-Roms, but it seems there is no overall, long-term strategy. There is, however, plenty of national expertise to formulate one.

In its attempt to develop competition between the cable companies and BT, the Government has also damaged any chance of getting a truly national superhighway infrastructure built. It is unrealistic to expect the cable companies to do it - they will only connect the most lucrative areas. Which leaves BT as the only serious contender.

Now is the time for some real horse-trading between the Government and BT to create a national optical fibre network. BT could go a long way towards connecting every school and college and giving them free local calls to encourage telecommunications.

In this pre-election run-up it is important to consider the views of the opposition parties (pages 20-21). Both have given telecommunications and education a lot of thought, and both are aware of the radical changes which are becoming possible for schools and for open and flexible learning. They also appear to be prepared to strike a deal with BT.

It looks very likely that before election time there will be coherent, exciting alternatives that reflect some of the buzz that surrounds these issues in the United States. In the "market" society that the UK has been encouraged to adopt, now is the time to shop around.

Merlin John, Editor, Computers Update

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