UK prime minister Tony Blair is expected to put IT at the center of the political agenda today by unveiling a consultation paper that will outline his government’s plan to link schools and colleges, and eventually libraries, museums and other public institutions using the internet in what he calls a National Grid for Learning. As […]
UK prime minister Tony Blair is expected to put IT at the center of the political agenda today by unveiling a consultation paper that will outline his government’s plan to link schools and colleges, and eventually libraries, museums and other public institutions using the internet in what he calls a National Grid for Learning. As well as getting some words of advice from Microsoft Corp chairman Bill Gates – who visits Downing Street today after spending time in Cambridge where Microsoft is investing $80m in a research and development center in collaboration with the University – the Prime Minister’s plan is also getting a leg-up from private companies which have formed a charity called NetYear to raise money to train teachers, buy computers for schools in some of the country’s poorest areas and link them to the internet. Because only 6,000 of the UK’s 32,000 schools are currently attached to the internet, leaving UK education in danger of falling behind better-connected education systems in other countries, the centerpiece of the National Grid for Learning plan is to get all schools hooked up to the net by the year 2002, establish educational programs and get teachers trained. Tony Blair says this might cost as little as 1 pound per pupil per year, although the capital cost of the program is being estimated in region of 2bn pounds overall. NetYear itself hopes to raise 10m pounds to wire 11,000 schools to the net in 1998; the systems it installs will effectively front-end the National Grid for Learning as it is assembled up and down the country. NetYear was created by ICL, Sun, Cisco Systems and The Daily Telegraph, which have donated a total of 2m pounds to the charity, which begins its work in November. Other vendors, including Microsoft, have been asked to participate. NetYear executive chairman David Wimpress, also the managing director of ICL’s education and consulting organization, says NetYear is modeled on a US program called Net Day ’95. In August 1995 volunteers sponsored by hundreds of private companies and organizations wired ten thousand schools in California to the internet. Wimpress, who’s been talking with Tony Blair about the charity’s plan, and how it will dovetail with the National Grid for Learning, says the charity will establish end-to-end managed networks, including the procurement of systems and net access, teacher training, curriculum creation and content management. NetYear will be likely emulate pilot projects such as the 11- school BEON, Bristol Educational Online Network which ICL and British Telecommunications Plc have funded to the tune of 4m pounds, and a similar project, MEON, in Merseyside. Wimpress claims results from putting computers in these schools and making internet resources and new educational programs available – the projects are being monitored by Exeter University – show that pupils are attending school more regularly, and getting turned on to education. NetYear will create a buyers guide that prospective suppliers will have to conform to.
Private industry to help via NetYear
ICL claims its ideas have played a key role in creating the National Grid for Learning paper. Wimpress says the company wrote a document on the creation of a knowledge utility that would encompass UK schools, colleges, libraries and other public institutions, for the UK’s previous Conservative government. He claims the new Labour administration was impressed with the plan and has used the ideas in its proposal. Plans for the National Grid for Learning mean schools colleges and eventually libraries and museums too will effectively outsource the installation, management and operation of their IT facilities to consortias of private companies who will run the services on a borough-by- borough basis getting paid according to the quality of service they provide measured against some pre-defined criteria. Implementation of the plan is expected to model a scheme already underway at Dudley Metropolitan Borough, which has asked companies including BT, ICL, Bull and Data General to bid for its IT contract for 91 schools in its area, worth $50m over ten years. The winner will be announced by year-end. Computer, telco and cable companies are expected to give concessions to the Grid in the form of cheap internet access, services and equipment. While not expected to endorse Microsoft technologies per se – there’ll be no specific product endorsements or recommendations for either the National Grid for Learning or NetYear – the government is thought to be considering the increased use of Windows NT in some of its big IT projects.