We're off on a learning marathon;The National Grid

13th March 1998 at 00:00
So what will it mean for you, the much-trumpeted grid that is supposed to transform learning in Britain? George Cole tries to sift the reality from the hype

HE starting gun has been fired and the race to develop the National Grid for Learning has begun. But this race will be more of a marathon than a sprint.

David Blunkett has announced a pound;100 million funding programme (half provided by Government, the remainder matched by local authorities) to kick-start the grid. There will also be a pound;230 million training programme for Britain's 450,000 teachers funded by the National Lottery, a Virtual Teacher Centre (VTC), an Internet site providing educational resources and managed by the British Educational Communications and Technology Agency (BECTA, formerly the National Council for Educational Technology).

UK NetYear 98, sponsored by ICL, Sun and others, aims to get as many schools as possible connected to the Internet, and has already registered more than 7092 schools and 88 local authorities. Interest in the the grid is certainly high. UK NetYear trained more than 1,000 teachers at the BETT educational technology show at Olympia in January - free of charge.

Last autumn, the Department for Education and Employment published its consultation paper, Connecting the Learning Society, about the grid. The department has received 1,000responses, almost one-third of them from schools. The responses have been overwhelmingly positive, although issues such as funding, training, management and content raise concerns.

One thing is certain: public money will not be enough. "Whatever is achieved by the government initiatives will have to be supported by others coming from the private sector," says Dominic Savage, chief executive of the British Educational Suppliers Association (BESA).

A number of public and private initiatives have been launched with the aim of getting schools online and making the the grid a useful resource, but there is clearly a long way to go. Around 6,000 out of 32,000 Britain's schools have Internet connections but the spread is patchy. And there are fears among Internet providers that BT's latest offer, instead of fixing costs, will mean higher charges for schools (see page 10). Even so, Mark East, Microsoft UK's education manager, predicts that half of all schools will be connected by the end of the year.

A survey of 116 British secondary schools, conducted by Alan Jervis and Torben Steeg at Manchester University's education faculty, found that 83 per cent had some form of Internet connection and that funding played a crucial role in whether schools became wired up.

"Any funding for the NGFL should be targeted at schools who are behind," says Mr Jervis. "My worry is that some schools are highly skilled at putting together attractive bids, and so the gap widens."

Many of the building blocks for the grid are being put together. BT, Microsoft and Research Machines are working on their version of a Virtual Teacher Centre, which aims to be complementary to the one managed by BECTA. Roger Watson, BT's head of marketing for schools, says other companies should not see their teachers' centre as a threat: "It's an opportunity for smaller companies to distribute their software to a wider audience."

Educational television is already at centre stage. The BBC Learning Station includes an index of 1,000 educational sites sorted by age and subject, links to numeracy and literacy campaigns, and revision help for GCSE students.

"The BBC has been providing educational material for around 75 years and the Internet is a mass medium that is an addition to traditional forms of media like television and books," says Robin Mudge, the Learning Station's creative director.

Many sites on the grid will be free, but some will be commercial. Argo Interactive's Argosphere includes unlimited online time at local call rates, Web space and educational resources for pound;10 (excluding VAT) per month. Anglia Multimedia will launch Anglia Interactive, a subscription site that will cost pound;79 to pound;499 a year, depending on the size of the school. It will be aimed at primary and secondary schools and will provide many classroom resources.

"There's so much on the Internet that it's difficult to find what you want. Our site should help make it easier," says Peter Stibbons, Anglia Multimedia's director of development.

Content will make or break the grid. If teachers and pupils find useful content, then it will succeed. But the content has to be good. TEEM (Teachers Evaluating Educational Multimedia) is a joint venture between Homerton College, Cambridge, Sparrow Hawk and Heald and BESA. It aims to offer high-quality software reviews on the the grid and on CD-Rom. The reviews will be independent and carried out by teachers who will be paid and trained. "There will be a number of criteria that software is measured against, and things will be evaluated in context," says Angela McFarlane, a TEEM director. These sort of initiatives could make the the grid a very useful resource, although ironically, although it has DFEE support, it has yet to secure the funding it needs to start its ambitious programme.

"Content is important," says Alan Jervis. "But we mustn't forget that the Internet is also about communication. The fact that the Government wants every teacher and student to have their own e-mail address suggests it recognises this too."

Costs is another important issue. The Manchester report found that many decisions about Internet access were based on what was free or cheap rather than what was best. BT and the cable industry offer schools ISDN digital telephone lines for a fixed annual fee (although BT's service is, surprisingly, limited to certain times of the day). Alan Jervis is worried that "the NGFL is too little, too late. ISDN can only provide Internet access for around 10 to 20 computers, when many schools have 90 to 150".

BT's Roger Watson says the company had to strike a balance and that its offer is probably sufficient for 95 per cent of schools. Dominic Savage agrees: "If we had aimed for something higher than ISDN, it would have excluded so many schools. That said, I think schools should be vocal about their needs."

Two thirds of teachers still do not use information and communications technology (ICT), and many teachers leave teacher training institutions with few relevant skills. The Teacher Training Agency has devised an ICT curriculum for all new post-graduate trainee teachers to follow from this September.

Next year, all serving teachers will begin a process of self-evaluation to determine their training requirements. TeacherNet, an initiative set up by Anglia Polytechnic University, DeMontfort University and others, plans to offer a teacher ICT self-evaluation system on the Internet.

There is clearly some way to go before the the grid begins to make an impact on the educational world, but Dominic Savage is upbeat. "The Government has set a number of events in train - there is great interest and the potential of the National Grid for Learning is immense."

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