A word from the wise guys;Cover feature;National Grid for Learning

Jack Kenny

Could do better, say three British Internet pioneers of the learning grid. Jack Kenny reports.

There is a common belief that the Internet is the product of governments, institutions and commercial organisations. This isn't necessarily the case, but apart from Tim Berners-Lee, the "architect" of the World Wide Web, the individual Internet pioneers tend to be forgotten. And those who blazed a trail in education technology are no different.

Few teachers will have heard of Tim Clark, Tim Challenor or Steve Sansom but all have had a profound impact on the development of communications in UK schools. Clark manages RM's Internet for Learning service and recognised the Internet's potential impact on schools at a time when few people even talked about it, let alone used it. Sansom, now Internet and business manager of the EC's European Schoolnet venture, was with BT in its early online days and points out that the Campus 2000 (TTNS) project was far ahead of its time in 1986. "Many of the Campus 2000 system managers are now leading the implementation of the Internet in countries around the world: Sweden, Spain, France, Canada, Denmark, Norway." He adds that in the early Nineties, BT had connected 10,000 schools using the Dialcom (Telecom Gold) and Prestel systems. Challenor's contribution to the field is through Edex, an Internet for schools pioneer. "I still have to convince people that a single network vendor is critical to the technical, economic and strategic viability of the (NGFL) project," he says. "Without an underlying high performance Internet protocol network, the nice, useful stuff NGFL fans envisage simply won't happen."

Any one of this trio is more than qualified to comment on the NGFL. Combined, their experience makes essential listening.

Five years ago RM had no experience of the telecoms market. Yet it took on the might of BT and won the battle to become the leading service provider for schools. One of the major decisions Clark took early on was whether to censor its service, and he now believes the filtering RM introduced was an important element to its success. However, he is sympathetic to the problems BT encountered, especially its constant scrutiny from the telecoms watchdog OFTEL.

Sansom, on the other hand, questions the wisdom of BT's drift away from the market: "BT launched CampusWorld and HomeCampus at a stage when they still had thousands of schools connected on a commercial basis. They had experience and much knowledge of the market.

"It now seems that they have lost interest in the education market, except for their core networking business, just at the stage when many other large companies are targeting the market with interesting offers."

And just as BT seeks markets other than educational information and communications technology (ICT), Sansom, who has the benefit of an EC-wide perspective, thinks the UK is no longer a leader in ICT. "The Nordic countries in particular are making much more progress than I had realised before joining this team," he says. "Every country is working at different speeds, but the ICT in education policies are surprisingly similar now. In terms of ICT implementation, the Nordic view that tools are required rather than just content is very close to my heart. And the Swedish ICT policy document, Tools For Learning, should be compulsory reading for all UK teachers."

Sansom praises the Swedish policy of offering all teachers and school managers a two to four-week course in ICT to acquaint them with its potential uses as an educational tool. All who complete the course are given a multimedia computer free of charge for home use - it is seen as an essential tool in mastering ICT and exploring its use in teaching. The idea is that teachers with their own computers can achieve the familiarity required for using a computer as a professional tool, for administrative as well as educational purposes.

"The NGFL seems to suffer the problem of being designed by committee. Perhaps too many people are involved and are trying to cover too much ground," believes Sansom. "The system looks rather clinical and contains very few surprises for me. It is a place where much information is available but it is not always easy to find."

His other criticism is that the NGFL has concentrated on the information provision side of the Internet and has missed opportunities to engage people in communication and publishing. "Many other countries provide national systems with a focus on tools for learning to help teachers, parents and pupils to exchange ideas, work together and to offer publishing systems. Countries that spring to mind are: Canada with Schoolnet or Japan and Konet, as well as Sweden, Denmark, Germany and Norway."

As one of the first to see the Internet's potential for schools, Clark's ability to predict future trends speaks for itself. He believes the NGFL's connection technology will prove an issue. "Today ISDN2 (high-capacity telephone lines) is the best way to connect. Eight thousand schools are signed up to BT's special tariff and 5,000 of those are with (RM's) Internet For Learning; BT is making pound;4 million a year from that. However, the future is broadband - ADSL, microwave, leased line, fibre and satellite.

"Even if the government funds that with NGFL money, the worry is will schools be able to fund it when the money dries up? I expect they will because they will value it by then."

Clark is convinced the future for secondary schools lies with leased lines (one step up from ISDN2). He acknowledges their expense, but is sure that schools will pay the price because they will see the benefit in the enthusiasm for learning that is generated among students.

Sansom, however, is not so sure. He says: "I think that providing sufficient bandwidth for some of the more interesting applications is not quite so easy as many people think. And then we have the information overload issue - too much information is no information."

Information is also a concern voiced by Challenor. "How many people would fly in a Windows-controlled Airbus or live near a Windows-controlled nuclear reactor? Or am I too late to ask these questions?" he asks. "MS Windows is becoming harder to understand. In practical terms this has to translate into an ever-widening gap between those who are technically savvy and those who aren't. And what this means is wealth moving towards those who understand why, how and when to control and manage the flow of information in society."

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Jack Kenny

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