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Which road forward?

Serious attention is belatedly being given to the direction and implications of the UK information superhighway. Keith Yeomans urges more radical action.

The Department for Education's consultative paper Superhighways for Education, launched last week, marks a major shift in the UK's approach to electronic learning. It is the first real recognition that the topic should be tackled, with wide consultation, at the level of central government policy making, rather than as a series of short-term experiments. But experience here and in north America suggests that policy issues must be addressed at wider and deeper levels if education is to achieve its rightful role.

Urgent attention is needed, as the communications industry embarks on a superhighway construction programme valued at tens of billions of pounds in the UK alone, to basic questions for educators. How can schools and colleges afford to tap these resources? What will happen to the teacher's role and, more important, to teachers' jobs? Will socially disadvantaged groups have access to the superhighway?

How can we be sure that the educational freight it carries to schools, colleges, homes and the workplace will be appropriate and of high quality? An attempt to address the policy implications of questions like these is made in Learners on the Superhighway?, a report based on my recent north American study tour made possible by a Winston Churchill Fellowship. Visits to over 30 policy makers and practitioners in agencies at federal and state level as well as the cable, software and telecommunications industries confirmed the need, already found in research here, for cross-sector resolutions.

Simply, the resources needed for effective electronic learning, and the decisions controlling them, extend beyond educators' remits, whether in town hall, county hall or Whitehall. But people in these places and the education community as a whole should play a key role in influencing these decisions.

A lot can be achieved by concerted action at local level. Government regulation here has pitched telecommunications competition at this level, making it fertile ground for collaborative action. Signs of this are emerging in, for example, the South Bristol Learning Network, a venture bringing together the local schools, college, universities, cable company and Training Enterprise Council, with British Telecom, ICL, the Open University and other communications industry players to share resources.

South Bristol is a variant on the community learning utility model, started in the US by CompuServe entrepreneur Jack Taub, in which a US-developed piece of managing software allows individuals and institutions to be charged pro rata for courseware use on centrally-owned equipment.

Economies of scale are just one advantage of local collaboration. Shared network use allows the substantial capacity and expertise of most higher education institutions to be shared with schools, colleges and local companies. This can give schools access to, for example, the SuperJANET broadband network, as in projects led by De Montfort and Edinburgh universities, and it also has implications for curriculum support and training.

Projects like these abound in the US, often driven by the cable and telecommunications companies who, locked in a struggle to sway public and political opinion over changes in industry regulation, see both public affairs and marketing returns. Bell Atlantic has a home-based learning project in Union City, New Jersey, at a middle school in a mainly Cuban American inner city. Working with New York's Centre for Educational Technology on an electronic mail system to tie in homes and schools, the telephone company has supplied 40 multimedia computers to schools and 150 to homes in the area. It plans to add a video server.

Obstacles to these collaborative ventures are usually administrative. The manager of a university audio-visual facility in one major UK city told me that, for a few hundred pounds, the local cable system passing homes, schools and colleges could be linked to his broadband network, opening up global satellite programming and video conferencing links to the wider public and paving the way for electronic extramural studies but no one will do it. An LEA in another part of the UK told me they had no strategy for communications while Economic Development, a few doors away, had a strategy but would not tell education because it was commercially sensitive information.

Problems like these are being overcome in the US by the strategic approach of Vice President Gore's information superhighway initiative. The Council of Chief State School Officers plays a key lobbying role at federal level, and with its membership. Its 1991 policy statement on learning technologies demands that each state develops "a clear, long-term, strategic plan for learning technologies".

Many now have such a plan, and in the process have developed a methodological expertise in evaluating the costs and benefits of a fast-changing technology. The exercise has also bred an informed level of consumer awareness among educators at state and school district level.

To ensure the maximum potential is exploited from the great opportunities available, a similar exercise should be undertaken in the UK by every local authority, bringing together all departments, central government agencies, chambers of commerce, higher education institutions, major companies and local representatives of voluntary and other user organisations to chart mid-term needs and resources. The cost would be repaid by savings achieved through cost-effective decision-making.

Local action is only one ingredient, however. Time spent talking to planners on the Microsoft campus in Seattle and in dish-dominated offices on the outskirts of Denver, home of the US cable industry (and a major investor in the UK superhighway) brought home the reality that many of the decisions shaping the content and price of electronic learning and the systems supporting it are being made there as well as in Tokyo and in Brussels. A distinctive UK communications culture can only be retained through concerted action at national level by the major public and private sector players controlling the massive cultural and technological capital already deployed by organisations like BT, the BBC, the educational publishers and the large number of small, innovative enterprises that already contribute significantly to the world's multimedia output.

Recognition of this need is beginning to emerge. The Department of Trade and Industry recently formed its Multimedia Group to stimulate the market. The Labour Party has recognised the need for an inter-sector approach: Anne Campbell MP chairs a group on education and IT whose findings are being fed into Labour's overall policy commission on the superhighway. Speaking at last week's conference, Education for the 21st Century, Shadow Education Secretary David Blunkett MP stressed the need to harness the technology to social needs: "We cannot tolerate a society where there is an information elite, either through lack of access or knowledge. Technology should be used for job enhancement rather than job replacement."

A leading US education lobbyist, Frank Withrow, sees the teacher of the future as being more like a GP. And US teaching unions are beginning to come to grips with the positive as well as negative implications of the technology for their profession. UK unions take note.

The impact of the central, cross-sector initiative in the US through the National Information Infrastructure Task Force is most strongly seen in the widespread awareness among education professionals, as among their counterparts in other fields, of superhighway issues relating to their work. The national debate is enriched by this awareness and the stress on equal access. The UK must move quickly if we are to influence the decisions that must now be taken to shape our information society.

Learners on the Superhighway is available free of charge from Keith Yeomans: fax 01795 539663,or electronic mail

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