A futuristic dream? No, work like this is already happening in a number of pilot projects in the Government's Superhighways for Learning scheme, being run jointly by the four UK education departments. The 23 successful network projects, which share Pounds 10 million funding, most of it from private sponsors, and which link more than 200 schools and colleges to the information superhighway, were announced last week by Deputy Prime Minister Michael Heseltine at the Superhighways Serving Education conference at Robinson College, Cambridge (TES, November 17). The Government will fund evaluation studies.
Many schools have been using computers linked to telephones for a number of years for electronic mail (e-mail) and searching on-line databases like FTProfile, which contains national newspapers. By the end of this year, around 2,000 schools will be connected to the Internet for electronic mail and to "surf" the oceans of World Wide Web pages with their text, graphics and limited multimedia.
But the promised land for the network nerds is broadband. These are high-capacity fibre-optic networks that can handle masses of data with relative ease. They even allow two-way video so that video conferencing becomes easy and natural.
But despite pioneering networks at institutions like Blackburn College, where broadband is used to transfer data, video and audio around the campus and plug staff and students straight into the superhighway, it has been viewed by many in education as a solution looking for a problem. Hence the Department for Education and Employment is funding pilot projects so that new ways of working can be developed. These will be evaluated by the National Council for Educational Technology and the Scottish Council for Education Technology over the next year.
The projects announced last week include some that are already underway, such as in Argyll and Bute (see Computers Update, The TES, June 25, 1995). This partnership between the local education authority, Strathclyde University and BT enables children in remote rural schools to work collaboratively with children in other schools via their computers.
They can see their colleagues on screen for discussions while working on the same project on-screen together. The activities range across the curriculum and staff can also use the system for staff development - a boon in remote communities.
The carefully chosen pilots cover a wide range of schools and colleges, activities, geographical areas and business partners. All are outlined in an important booklet launched by Mr Heseltine in Cambridge. Called "Superhighways for Learning: The Way Forward", this also sets out the Government's response to its superhighways consultation which started earlier this year.
What emerged from the 400 contributions received from individuals, institutions and organisations was the need to develop:
* network literacy skills;
* high-quality network applications and services, along with the means to pay for them and to safeguard intellectual property rights;
* the necessary infrastructure, possibly a gradual migration from narrowband (like dial-up Internet services) to intermediate and broadband;
* support for schools and further education colleges;
* universal access to broadband networks including rural areas.
Some organisations felt the higher education network, SuperJANET, was pointing the way but expressed concern about international bottlenecks. High connection costs and tariffs were seen as obstacles - education needed more flexible and affordable rates. (This could be helped by Oftel's suggestion of a "universal service fund" to subsidise schools and colleges.) There was also some concern over anti-social material on the Internet, although it was recognised that there are now methods to control this.
The DFEE has identified its priorities as raising the level of IT capability in schools, colleges and teacher education; establishing broadband network literacy, network applications and services for education and support and training for teachers; building up the infrastructure.
The Government is pledged to:
* support and encourage this new technology in education and make advice available;
* continue funding for equipment and support for IT capability;
* look to the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority and other bodies to help develop network literacy;
* liaise with industry to stimulate additional on-line services and closer industryeducation links;
* require the Teacher Training Agency and other bodies to update teacher education;
* work with the Higher Education Funding Agency to review the SuperJANET network.
The Government will also press service suppliers to lower prices for schools and colleges. And teachers, governors and others working in schools are urged to assess their needs for on-line services carefully, ensuring that networking literacy for all is reflected in development plans and policies. They should ensure that new equipment can be upgraded, and that networking is a priority in teacher education and staff development. A final consideration is security, and encouraging responsible use of worldwide sources of information.
As an election approaches, politicians are hitching up their trailers for a trip out on the information superhighway. They will probably emerge with a wide variety of pledges, but the main concerns of education all emerged at the conference.
Organiser Joyce Wood, from the University of Sussex, commented: "First of all, there was a clear recognition of the importance of these technologies. Superhighways and multimedia are social unifiers with special promise for the children who worry us most. Second, there was an acceptance that teachers know best and that they need support. Finally there was agreement that no government can fund this on its own. Education and industry must work in partnership.
"The next step is to build on this consensus. We must work out ways of accepting commercial support while keeping educational values paramount. "
"Superhighways for Education: The Way Forward" (ISBN 011 270918 4), Pounds 4.95 from HMSO and its bookshops and agents. It can also be downloaded from the DFEE's World Wide Web pages at http:www.open.gov.ukdfeehome.htm
* Oftel, 50 Ludgate Hill, London EC4M 7JJ
* The Superhighways Serving Education conference was organised by Joyce Wood, Science Policy Research Unit (CICT), University of Sussex, Falmer, East Sussex BN1 9RF. Audio-cassettes of the speeches and seminars are available from QED, Lancaster Road, New Barnet, Herts EN4 8AF. Tel: 0181 441 7722.