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Who knows best?

The Government wants all pupils to have a space online. But schools' ideas of how to provide this may be ignored, warns Jack Kenny

The Government wants schools to be more independent and to make their own decisions - except, apparently , when it comes to learning platforms. There is a requirement that by 20072008 every learner in England should be offered a personal online space, yet it appears that the bulk of the funding will go to regional broadband consortia and local authorities, not to schools.

Bringing in learning platforms and making them effective will be one of the most radical and innovative moves ever attempted in schools and colleges.

It will require role re-definition, preparation, sensitivity, finesse, an acceptance of change and a profound understanding of learning. But we are faced with a top-down initiative and a clash between those who think they know about learning and those who do - the teachers.

But we are off to a poor start. One of the first broadband consortia to make a move is Cleo (Cumbria and Lancashire Education Online). It invited schools to a roadshow to explain the initiative: there, headteachers were given the impression they should abandon learning platforms they had used successfully for two years in favour of a platform yet to be developed by Cleo. The low point was when the representative from the Government's technology agency, Becta, showed a good-practice video from Teachers' TV featuring the platform that the schools had been happily using (UniServity) - but which Cleo would not be using. A complaint has been made to the DfES.

A spokesman for Cleo says: "The Cleo project board took the decision to offer Moodle as its option for schools, based on feedback from schools in Cumbria and Lancashire. The work Cleo is carrying out is funded from the local authorities retained connectivity and learning systems grant and will include infrastructure, content and systems development for primary and secondary and a training programme. This will provide each school with the option of choosing Moodle as an introduction to developing learning platform provision in the school."

One head points out that the strategy proposed by the Department for Education and Skills (DfES) and the local authority was strongly directed towards disconnecting from existing successful partnerships and buying into local authority provision - which does not yet exist. They were also concerned that they had not been consulted by Cleo.

Margaret Diffley of St Cecelia's Technology College, Longridge, Lancashire, says: "The implication from the presentation was that schools wouldn't get funds for learning platforms, and that the money would go to the local authority and broadband consortium."

Not all the consortia are developing their own platforms. "That's not a good use of funding," says Mel Phillipson, the head of the Northern Grid.

The Northern Grid has bought in a platform and wants to use its money to help learners, teachers and schools directly. She does, however, believe that, at the present time, "few schools have the technical ability to make a big decision like this. They also do not have the capacity to understand and support these complex systems."

Dave Hassell, director for educational content at Becta, argues that local authorities and schools should not, at this stage, be thinking about buying a product. "It is about obtaining a solution. The decision about the technology is the last decision that should be made. At present no one product will offer all one requires; most people will need someone to integrate more than one product to create a solution.

"The questions to ask include: what must the system be able to do to improve teaching and learning; will any system be interoperable with others, both for content and learner information; will it support the long-term goal of personalised learning?"

Perhaps, for now, the most important thing to do is to describe to teachers what learning platforms are - and then to convince them that they are necessary.

Issues for the policy makers

* How can a debate be initiated when the teachers who will use the platforms don't have the experience to make informed decisions?

* Should schools that do not agree with the policy of their regional broadband consortium be penalised by having to pay for their own learning platform?

* Should the broadband consortia be compelled to consult their schools?

* How will teachers be trained to make effective use of the platforms?

* Is it appropriate to use the people who put broadband into schools to handle this initiative, which is more about learning than technology?

Questions for schools

* Do teachers use ICT to plan work?

* Do they download and use resources from the internet?

* Do staff and students use email as a regular part of their teaching and learning?

* In lessons, do students access ICT resources and save work in their own area of the network?

* Have staff begun to reconsider the way they teach in the light of technological change?


* Becta's guidance: .pdf

* Advice for teachers:

* Teachernet Advice

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