What is the National Grid for Learning?

In October 1997 the new UK Prime Minister, Tony Blair, launched the UK Government’s consultation paper "Connecting the Learning Society" with a promise that a prototype of the National Grid for Learning (NGfL) would be launched early 1998. By the 14 January 1998 David Blunkett, Secretary of State for Education and Employment, launched the prototype at the British Education and Training Technology exhibition. Developments are moving fast and it could become a world exemplar if those most closely involved get it right. But what exactly is the National Grid for Learning?

"a virtual teacher centre"

According to the UK government, initially it is based on the development of a Virtual Teacher Centre (VTC) and the Standards and Effectiveness Database. The Grid will be prototyped until the Autumn, with teachers in about 1,000 schools and with specially commissioned focus groups. During that period material and services covering many areas of learning, in and beyond schools, will be added. The prototype Grid will be developed in several phases beyond its launch, to take on board material from both public service providers and commercial sources. One of the purposes of the prototype is to assist the development of ground-rules for the Grid so that those using it can be assured of the quality and suitability of the materials and services that it provides.

Ultimately the Grid will provide for learners in schools, further education, higher education, libraries and lifelong learning. It will be developed so those learners in the various home countries of the UK can access information most directly relevant to their local education systems. First steps in this development are reflected in the web-based home page of the NGfL: http://www.ngfl.gov.uk/.

where users can click on the map of Scotland to bring up the Scottish Virtual Teacher Centre (SVTC), and similarly for Northern Ireland. Over the next year, other material will be added to the site including schemes of work for curriculum subjects, examples of high quality material used by practising teachers, such as school behaviour plans and individual education plans.

But, all of this sounds rather familiar. The UK had NERIS – the National Educational Resources Information Service in the late 1980’s and early 90’s. It was primarily an online service, backed-up with CD ROM quarterly updates, aimed at providing teachers with high quality learning resources for their curriculum needs. The initiative led the world until the government department funding it – Department of Trade and Industry – pulled the plug! That was before the days of interdepartmental co-operation. The Department for Education would have nothing to do with it then! But the NGfL must learn the lessons of NERIS and not make the same mistakes. Ease of accessibility was one issue for NERIS but there was also a lack of culture amongst teachers to access resources from online services. The WWW has certainly started to make that job easier.

The NGfL Virtual Teacher Centre web site also states that there will be information and guidance on government policy on a variety of subjects including the national literacy and numeracy strategies, raising standards and effectiveness, school management, school finance, teacher supply, training and qualifications, discipline and attendance, special educational needs, equal opportunities, under 5 provision and out of school activities. Certainly useful material if it is easier than finding the relevant paper in the school staff room or the headteacher’s office. Certainty leads towards plans of a paperless open government. But, this hardly offers the dynamic opportunities that telematics-based learning could create for new paradigms of learning.

The developments towards the National Grid for Learning were well documented in issue 12 of this newsletter in February 1997 and were even mentioned in an earlier version of this newsletter ("Using Telematics in Education and Training" issue 14) in January 1994. The idea came from the United States – known as a Community Learning Utility. Creating a National Learning Network was a key component of the early plans for a University for Industry (UfI) – strongly supported by the UK Labour party when it was in opposition. Now the labour party has formed the new government both have become key policy. During the later half of 1997 there was some concern that the UK Department for Education and Employment had decided it was convenient to develop the NGfL and the UfI as two separate initiatives with the NGfL just as a school initiative. Fortunately, they now appear to be seeing them as more interrelated.

Another component of the NGfL concept will be the "Further Education Resources for Learning" (FERL) which is part of a Further Education Funding Council (FEFC) funded initiative to support the use of Information and Learning Technology (ILT) in Further Education. Their web site will be: http://ferl.ncet.org.uk/.

The work for this initiative is being carried out by the National Council for Educational Technology (NCET) in collaboration with the Further Education Development Agency (FEDA). The site will provide information on ILT materials and how they might best be used to support effective learning. It will include reviews and case study material provided by college staff and students, and over the life of the project will incorporate feedback from the FE community.

Early in 1998, the UK Government will publish a White Paper on Lifelong Learning. It is hoped that this consultative document will also contain details of another component of the National Grid for Learning. Potentially, this could be the largest component providing ways to access learning for all individuals, wherever they are and independent of time. Look out for news on the UK Lifelong Learning Web page: http://www.lifelonglearning.co.uk/.

The first report of the UK National Advisory Group for Continuing Education and Lifelong Learning "Learning for the 21st Century" states that "The progressive development of a culture of lifelong learning for all in this country will need to include a strategy to embrace and take advantage of the new technologies of communication and information. Harnessing their use will provide additional means to open up access, overcome barriers to learning associated with distance and timing, give new opportunities for both individual and group learning and constitute mechanisms through which to create and disseminate new learning materials. Properly related to arrangements to give students reliable information and guidance and linked to facilities for interaction with other learners and tutorial support, the new technologies can also offer opportunities to widen participation and bring high quality learning schemes to learners at an affordable cost." The full report can be found at: http://www.lifelonglearning.co.uk/nagcell/index.htm.

But, the National Grid for Learning cannot be just a government top-down initiative – remember NERIS! The NGfL is surely a number of local, regional and national initiatives which will all become interlinked in the same way as the railways developed in the 19th century. Yes, some railway companies failed and yes, there were some incompatibility issues. But, eventually they all came together and we now have a more or less efficient railway network – which in many ways has been hampered by government policy. In these days of limited resources, the NGfL has to be a joint public-private initiative.

"competing managed services"

And that is what the government really wants. The consultation paper talks about "competing managed services." It considers that the challenge would be to set out a vision of a potentially fully developed grid for offering schools comprehensive curricular, training and administrative services, maximising the use of home-school links, and extending into services for further educational, higher education, libraries, community centres and to support lifelong learning, including the services which will in due course be offered by the University for Industry. In building up the Grid, it sees government’s role would be to trigger the development of competing managed services to which schools or local education authorities individually or in groups would subscribe.

Clearly industry is lining itself up to offer services and there are already a large number of initiatives available regionally and locally.

Therefore, what is the National Grid for Learning? - It’s an umbrella initiative – led, reinforced and stimulated by National government, but not a "nationalised" top-down service. Under the umbrella a wide range of services will develop, some purely commercial, a few purely public sector funded, but the majority public-private initiatives. They should be given the "space" by government to develop in a healthy competitive atmosphere but should be carefully guided towards common standards to enable interoperability.

"Staffordshire Learning Net"

The Staffordshire Learning Net in the north-west midlands of England is one example of public-private partnership: http://www.rmplc.co.uk/eduweb/sites/secc39/sln/html/main_page.html.

It connects together all educational providers in Staffordshire through Learning Centres. Many centres are open learning centres, available for community use, to promote and facilitate lifelong learning. Information technology will be used to connect learners to appropriate course materials, tutors and other resources. It is a partnership between Staffordshire’s Education Department, the Staffordshire Training and Enterprise Council, Staffordshire University, Keele University, 7 FE colleges, 51 high schools, the Library Service, youth and community centres, the Careers Service, 314 primary schools, 14 middle schools and 24 special schools. Private sector partners including BT and RM are providing sponsorship. The Net is there to address several needs which include:

The Learning Centres in schools and colleges will be used by pupils and students during the day. They will also be used for homework clubs. The Open Learning Centres will be available, sometimes during the school day, but particularly in the evenings, weekends and holidays, for use by the community. Users will include adult learners, youth clubs, job seekers, small businesses, those who wish to use high-level IT equipment or those who just want to ‘surf the net’.

In the first year, it is estimated around 130,000 learners will be using the Net’s facilities on a regular basis including 15000 adult learners, 2500 FE students and over 110000 school pupils.

Users, who are not registered on school, college or university courses will be charged a modest fee. The workstations will be sponsored, helping to offset the costs. Outside school hours, trained facilitators will staff the Open Learning Centres.

Further examples will appear in the next edition of the newsletter.

Issue 14&15 "Learning in a Global Information Society" 31 January 1998