Educationists and teacher trainers should seize the opportunity presented by the lottery-funded National Grid for Learning, Christina Preston says
Teachers have been deterred from getting on the Internet by technical and financial barriers as well as lack of training and access. These fundamental obstacles are being tackled by the Government in 1998.
The government deal with BT and the cable companies is likely to ensure that all schools have cable or telephone connections at about Pounds 750 a year. Around Pounds 400 million will be released to equip the schools, libraries and museums. Perhaps most important of all, National Lottery money will be available for teacher education at about Pounds 400 a head, creating an opportunity for institutions such as London's Institute of Education and the Open University already run specialist courses for teachers and lecturers who want to teach online.
The Government has challenged service providers to set up competing managed Internet services. Existing education services from BT, Research Machines and Microsoft are combining forces. Research Machines' Internet for Learning (www.rmplc.co.uk) already provides extensive resources for pupils, while BT's CampusWorld (www.campus.bt. com/CampusWorld) offers more than 20,000 pages of content designed to help schools make the most of their Internet connections. This consortium's Virtual Teachers' Centre will offer training materials, lesson plans and other professional development resources including forums for teacher debate, review, discussion and self-help. Research Machines and BT have adopted Microsoft Internet Explorer as the preferred browser, a matter of concern for schools with Acorn computers.
Government pump-priming is welcome. But when support is withdrawn the fragmented education market will not sustain a competitive market for long. Multimedia publishers who currently do not regard quality educational products as viable are watching to see whether the Learning Grid will provide a distribution method that cuts costs.
Now that the cost of cable and telephone connections is controlled, the fear is that the Internet service provider subscription could still be prohibitive. Consequently, consortia are appealing for the Government to avoid wasteful duplication of effort at the development stage.
Most companies would prefer to be subcontracted to work alongside the approved national sites. One of these is developed by the National Council for Educational Technology, which has been tasked by the DfEE to provide government documentation and government-funded project information for teachers. Another potential education host has been generated by the teaching profession itself. TeacherNet UK (www.teachernetuk.org.uk) is an open, independent organisation developed "with teachers, for teachers" to support teaching, learning, school improvement and school management. De Montfort University, the Institute of Education and Anglia Polytechnic University's Ultralab are the main investors of time and resource.
The TeacherNet UK organisation is unique because impetus comes from those who see potential in the Internet for enhancing professional practice in education. To ensure that change which is pedagogically sound takes place quickly, TeacherNet UK has sought an open partnership with a range of media and computer companies. Companies talking to TeacherNet UK includes: ICL, Oracle, Cisco, Sun and Xemplar. This open access online community with established contacts worldwide could provide an independent umbrella for all the providers.
Oracle's new interest in education widens the field of technologies available to teaching and learning: delivery methods can range from conventional computers and software to touch screen information kiosks, network computers, games consoles and television sets. Smart cards allow access in other public places like libraries and community centres.
The BBC, in cooperation with Oracle, is experimenting with settop boxes and digital television which promise exciting opportunities for multimedia learning. Their prototype site is under wraps until January 14 when it will be launched at BETT, the educational technology show at London's Olympia. BBC Education is establishing its interest in teacher education by launching "Computers Don't Bite Teachers" in May. Working in partnership with key education and commercial providers the BBC is providing a range of information and communication technology (ICT) training materials (print, CD-Rom and Web) to be used as a teaching and learning resource. The aim is to introduce teachers to the technology by stressing the benefits both on an individual basis and within the curriculum.
A steering group has been set up to advise on the development of the project; members include the DfEE, NCET, NAACE, TTA, The Scottish Office, SCAA, SCET, UK NetYear, Research Machines, ICL, Xemplar, primary and secondary teachers. There is also an active relationship with the Parents Information Network and The National Confederation of Parent Teacher Associations. Advisory groups comprising teachers, local education authorities, local authorities and teacher training agencies are being set up to trial the sample material. The BBC is widely trusted in education and could provide the last piece of the jigsaw in terms of acceptable editorial control and quality content.
Education suppliers are responsible and committed, but impecunious. If a big international player were to take overall control of National Grid for Learning content it might opt for the cheapest method of delivering a service: a vast inactive repository of materials used to supplement textbooks. The real benefit for teachers if partnership with companies is pursued should be a lively and cohesive community that can debate, review, publish, socialise and learn online. To create this kind of community is teacher-intensive. Outstanding teacher educators and local education advisors are needed to moderate and teach at a distance. This layer is essential to make the grid work. Funding must be provided to pay them. Respected researchers into effective computer mediated communications must be consulted.
Christina Preston is director of Mirandanet and visiting fellow, Institute of Education, University of London.