Gearing up for the National Grid
Marshal Anderson examines the issues involved in the Government's initiative to set up a National Grid for Learning
InteracTive Jan '97
The big news for educational IT this autumn has been the meeting between Tony Blair and Bill Gates. This was certainly important enough to get the attention of the national press and provide a neat little spoiler for the Conservative party conference. But, that is not what we're really concerned with. The real meat of what's going on behind the hype is in a new document from the government called "Connecting the Learning Society". In this document the government is setting out its vision for the future of what they are now calling ICT skills. Just so you know, the C stands for communications, and that's what makes this document and the potential it describes so different from stuff we've seen before.
In its opening chapter, Connecting the Learning Society puts forward a broad ranging set of ideals for developing the Grid for Learning. This involves the linking up of pretty much every educational institution in the country, including schools, colleges, universities, libraries, adult learning institutions, museums and galleries - and whatever else they can think of. Further than this they are also looking to connections in the home and workplace, hospitals, the high street and anywhere else people might be.
This enormous project divides into three inter-related parts.
All of these exist to some extent already. When we look at the technical aspects of the grid we can see that the Internet as it currently stands takes us a long way towards our goal. We have already heard about the ways in which British Telecom and the many independent cable companies will be contributing to the wiring up of educational institutions by providing free connection and low usage costs. Perhaps more complex on the technical side is the issue of equipping the end users. Currently we have enormous variety of equipment installed, much of which is not really up to the job. When we look at the wider aims of the grid we see areas where there is currently no equipment at all. So, while it is fairly clear how we will wire up the educational community, it's not currently clear where the money will come from to provide hardware and software actually in schools and elsewhere.
We also don't yet know how well the Internet will be received in the home. Currently about three million people in the UK have personal access to a Internet at work or at home. The new range of network computers that are becoming available at a relatively low price may increase that figure substantially, but we would really need something like a tenfold increase if the grid is to become truly available in the public domain.
As this is extremely unlikely to happen, it's vitally important that any plan we make includes public access on a large scale; this is most likely to take place within the public library system as well as making access available through adult education institutions. This aspect of the grid's development cannot be stressed enough. It will be vitally important that we do not create a further under-class within the population by cutting them out of this project. It's interesting to note that in the US last year approximately 4% of all Internet access was from homeless people - we need to look to produce accessibility at that level. Currently, the consultation document only really addresses this issue from the point of view of costs to institutions, though there is reference to something called 'home learning centres' - a rather vague concept that seems to translate as a package of hard and software to be 'marketed to parents and individuals', rather than an actual place. It will be interesting to see how the accessibility issue is dealt with as time goes on.
The next phase of the grid's development will be the training of teachers and other institutions staff to actually use it. Currently, we have a real problem here; both the Stevenson report and the DfEE's 1996 Survey on IT in Schools painted a fairly gloomy picture. Both discovered that the number of teachers involving themselves in in-service training in aspects of IT are currently falling. Considering the current fiscal environment in which schools operate this is hardly surprising and one must question the entire project considering the starting point we currently occupy next to the enormous scope of the plan. However, that's probably another article.
We can see that the planners recognise the enormous task of training that faces them and it seems likely that a figure of around £100,000,000 will be earmarked from the lottery funds to get this training under way. If things go according to plan, once things are under way the grid itself will actually be used to deliver this training. So, with a bit of luck and a following breeze we might hope to see a ratchetting up of ICT skills in schools and elsewhere as time goes on. However, this isn't going to go on in isolation and I imagine there will be plenty of teachers reading this article wondering how on earth they are going to fit in ICT training next to all the other commitments they have.
Finally, we come to the content of the grid. This really is the big issue because it asks our huge range of content providers in both the public and private sectors to develop a completely new approach to the provision of educational materials. In the first instance it looks like the content will be aimed at teachers and other education professionals. That is, the plan does not seem to expect there to be, initially at least, a vast range of materials aimed at students themselves. This looks like an eminently sensible way of going on - it doesn't envisage rows and rows of Internet-linked computers on desks with students bashing away at programmed learning materials. What we seem more likely to see is an emerging range of reference materials available to professionals and, hopefully, provided by professionals. The document describes this as a Virtual Teachers Centre and it's plain that such an entity would be of phenomenal use. Looking at this in a very practical way you might try visiting some of the large US based educational sites. There you will find a range of down-loadable resources in the form of lesson plans and work sheets. While this kind of thing might seem like a rather prosaic use of the technology it is exactly the sort of facility that will get teachers using it - it's important that they see immediate benefits.
We can add to this simple beginning a range of materials from professionals themselves. So, you should be able to download administrative resources and, more to the point, communicate with many other teachers trying to solve the same problems you have. This rather Utopian ideal of a national database of good practice is something that all education professionals should be able to get behind. Of course, one of the major areas of contents in the first instance will be devoted to the use of the grid itself.
The real problem with content, even at the very start, will be how it is paid for. In the US, companies have a more open-minded view of marketing and so a lot of the stuff you will find there has some sort of sponsorship. Most, not all, UK companies look for fairly immediate returns on investment, so we are less likely to see that kind of symbiosis producing the sites we need. When we look further to the actual provision of educational content we find the need for nothing less than a paradigm shift in the way money moves. Assuming that we want the grid to be free at the point of use there will need to be developed some way of paying content providers centrally. The consultation document seems to point to the idea of ISPs providing this as added value, but this wont work if we end up with the walled garden approach that RM have taken - schools will be faced with choosing which set of content to buy into and thus we will get a lot of duplication of content and confusion as to just which provider is best. Sherstons early work with AOL on Hodge Podge House and its subsequent demise shows that we have to establish a reliable income stream for providers. The obvious candidates, companies like 4Mation, RESOURCE, Topologika and the rest, will not be in a position financially to take risks with this sort of work. Leaving it just to the large companies like Anglia, YTV and Microsoft will restrict choice and squeeze smaller providers.
Connecting the Learning Society has some bold aims and it doesnt shy away from producing the targets by which it will be judged. By 2002 it expects all serving teachers to be confident and competent in using ICT within the curriculum, some 75% of all teachers and lecturers to have their own e-mail address and a host of other related targets will have been reached. If you look further into the future its possible to see some areas of educational provision moving entirely onto networks - the promised University for Industry could well lead the way here. If we are to make lifelong learning available to all then delivering it via networks may be the only way that the nation can afford it.
Its important that we do this right, that we arent penny pinching and that we get out of the idea that problems are solved by publishing glossy charters and then expecting someone else to come up with the resources. The government expects the UK to become a centre for excellence in the development of networked software content for education and lifelong learning....and a world leader in the export of learning services. These are fine words and such an outcome would be of benefit to everyone; lets see the government, and the nation, put its money where its mouth is.<Back