The Building Blocks of the
National Grid for Learning

by Nicola Hirst,
Research Assistant
pjb Associates, UK

As was announced in the last newsletter (see What is the National Grid for Learning?), David Blunkett has launched a 100 million funding programme to kick-start the National Grid for Learning (NGfL). Half of this funding is being provided by National Government, the remainder will be matched by local authorities. Many of the building blocks for the grid are already being put together. A number of public and private initiatives have been launched with the aim of getting schools online and making the grid a useful resource and companies such as BT, Microsoft, RM and ICL are all fighting for school computer space.

There is clearly a long way to go with only around a fifth of Britain's 32,000 schools having Internet connections and with the spread being patchy.

"half of all UK schools will be connected by the end of 1998?"

However, Microsoft UK's education manager, predicts that half of all schools will be connected by the end of the year and there seems little doubt that the NGfL is destined to become a part of everyday school life.

Many local authorities and school consortia have already made the decision to surf the wave of information and communications technology. Dudley Metropolitan Borough Council in the West Midlands of England will

"a public private partnership"

contract out its entire ICT programme under the UK Government's Public Private Partnership. Various consortia, including BT, RM, ICL and Xemplar, have bid for a contract that could be worth 50 million over 10 years.

ICL have already invested some 2 million in an education project in Bristol. BEON, the Bristol Education Online Network is a managed ICT service that has re-engineered the way that 11 schools deliver the National Curriculum to their classrooms. ICL have also been awarded a 77 million contract to manage the Merseyside Education Online Network (MEON) over the next five years. MEON will link 10 secondary schools and two adult education centres together, offering various kinds of educational support.

The Staffordshire Learning Net (SLN), featured in last issue of this newsletter, is an authority-wide initiative that connects 400 schools and other educational institutions to each other and to the Internet. Sponsorship is provided from private sector partners including BT and RM.

"free and commercial sites"

Many sites on the grid will be free, but some will be commercial. Argo Interactive's Argosphere includes unlimited online time at local call rates, Web space and educational resources for 10 (excluding VAT) per month. Anglia Multimedia will launch Anglia Interactive, a subscription site aimed at primary and secondary schools which will provide many classroom resources. The site will cost from 79 to 499 a year, depending on the size of the school.

BT have created an online education content service called CampusWorld. CampusWorld, available on subscription, contains over 20,000 pages of resources, activities, projects, source materials and discussion groups for the classroom, extracting information from organisations such as National Trust, the Ordnance Survey, the Basic Skills Agency and the Welcome Foundation. CampusWorld can also provide a ‘Walled Garden’ facility giving protected access to the Web so that pupils can surf in safety.

With television already leading the way in educational resources BBC Education has gone online with the BBC Learning Station. The BBC Learning Station includes an index of 1,000 educational sites sorted by age and subject, links to numeracy and literacy campaigns, and revision help for GCSE students. The BBC Learning Station is a combination of specially created sites, many of which accompany current BBC Television programmes, and links to educational services currently available on the Internet.

A major problem facing the growth of the National Grid for Learning is ICT illiteracy among teachers. To help teachers get to grips with ICT, TeacherNet, an initiative set up by Anglia Polytechnic University, De Montfort University and others, plans to offer a teacher ICT self-evaluation system on the Internet. Teachers build up their own personal teacher profiles, or passports, enabling TeacherNet to act as matchmaker between the teacher and relevant documents and resources. TeacherNet aims to provide teachers with support in their 'professional development’ as opposed to providing resources for direct classroom use.

The content of the grid is vital to its success; there is no doubt that the grid can only succeed if teachers and pupils find the content useful. TEEM (Teachers Evaluating Educational Multimedia) a joint venture between Homerton College, Cambridge, Sparrow Hawk and Heald and BESA, aims to offer high-quality software reviews on the grid and on CD-ROM. The reviews will be independent and carried out by teachers who will be paid and trained.

There is clearly some way to go before the grid begins to make any real impact on educational life. However, there is no doubt that greater ICT and Internet involvement in British schools is inevitable.

Issue 16&17 "Learning in a Global Information Society" 25 March 1998