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Educational Materials on the Net: Images, Information and the Future

In January 1995, the Secretary of State for Education issued an invitation at the British Educational Technology and Training Exhibition to the telecommunications, cable, broadcasting, information and multimedia industries to work with the education community to develop, through a programme of industry funded pilot projects, commonly accessible national and ultimately international education superhighways. In April of the same year, the UK Education Departments published the consultation document "Superhighways for Education" (HMSO, 1995,a) raising the whole debate about the potential of new broadband networks for education and training and inviting responses and pilot project submissions from industry and education. Six months later, the publication "Superhighways for Education: the way Forward" (HMSO, 1995b) summarised the responses to the consultation and named the pilot projects.

What progress has been made since the early 1970s when the Guardian predicted 'the day when the computer takes over a major part of the teaching of basic fundamentals is a very long way off' (Liebmann, 1971). What significant changes in Computer Based Learning (CBL) have spanned those 15 years? What real value has been added to the education of young people and at what cost?

The question of how network technologies can enhance the process of teaching and learning needs to be addressed as does the question of the advantages or constraints in using these technologies in education. Several associated technologies are relevant to the potential of networks in education since their applications are likely to be the kind of applications available on line on superhighways.

Firstly, CD-ROM. This technology has made a particular impact on educational institutions as an information source, accessible within libraries and in the classroom, capable of enhancing students' data handling skills. Multimedia learning packages can replace traditional lectures and be made available as self-paced open learning resources (e.g. The Environmental Law CD-ROM produced as a joint initiative between the Department of Environmental Science and the Teaching and Learning Development Unit at the University of Bradford).

Interactive video (IV), although not fully digital, closely resembles the distance learning and training applications which may become available over education networks. IV has the ability to integrate full or partial screen moving pictures with text or graphics, enabling the user to control and interact with this material using a computer. Evaluation of this technology, with the television based Compact Disc Interactive (CDI) has been undertaken in the school curriculum. Integrated Learning Systems (ILS) are computer based and generally networked within an educational institution. These manage the delivery of the curriculum material to students so they are presented with individual programmes of work. Some are able to adjust automatically to provide appropriate levels of difficulty according to student's responses, while others use teacher or student intervention to move to higher levels. All systems provide formative assessment and diagnostic records for both students and teachers. In the USA, systems have been in use for some time with both teachers and students reporting learning gains. In the UK, early outcomes from a pilot project have indicated some learning gains and an increase in attention levels and personal learning responsibility. All current ILS run on high bandwidth local area networks. Work is needed to establish the proper relationship between networked in school ILS and supplementary outside material accessed via broadband or other means. In a recent report "Integrated Learning Systems: phase II results", the National Council for Educational Technology (NCET) states that it is not at present advising rapid development in ILS as a priority but it does recognise that some institutions may themselves wish to invest in systems on an exploratory basis. The NCET believes that the evidence so far fully justifies continued and more focused exploration of possible benefits from the use of ILS (NCET, 1996).

The concept of the information superhighway originated in the plans of the Clinton administration to develop a "National Information Infrastructure" in the USA. In 1994, the Government challenged industry to connect all the country's classrooms, libraries, hospitals and clinics by the year 2000. In December 1993, the European Union Summit approved proposals to begin planning for the "European Information Society"; recommendations about the major technical and regulatory preconditions were published in the "Report on Europe and the Global Information Society" (in Bulletin of the European Union: Supplement 2/94, European Commission, Office for Official Publications, 1994). Preparations for the "Global Information Superhighway" involves information and learning technologies as vehicles for transforming education and training, supporting active teaching and learning methods and individual learning. The technical and regulatory frameworks for European Superhighways have been drawn up along with a common approach to a European competitive market for information services.

The rapid advance over the last decade of electronic mail, mobile phones, faxes, computer games, have influenced the lives of students outside university rather more than inside. "The classroom model of teaching and learning has not changed significantly in at least a century". Pressures to change the traditional model have included increase in student numbers, decreasing units of resource etc. The potential to change the traditional lecture based model of teaching and learning through technology is currently influenced by this convergence of video, telecommunications and computer technology, growth in the use of digital technology, applications, operating methods, multimedia and information highways and other emerging technologies.

SuperJANET (the Super Joint Academic Network) provides the UK's first education superhighway and is currently one of the largest high performance networks in the world. Applications of SuperJANET to date have included group working, advanced information services, remote consultation and distance learning and teaching. The SuperJANET network is capable of handling high quality video, a capability not provided by low bandwidth networks. Hence it is possible, using SuperJANET, to receive large moving image files and view images from simulations in real time. Pilot projects using SuperJANET in medicine have permitted students at a remote site to view surgical operations from a video camera, to control the camera remotely, and to maintain two way audio contact with an instructor. The SuperJANET network has also enabled access to brain imaging scanners from a distance and to an extended database of cases for comparative studies. In other areas of higher education pilot projects have focused on the ability of SuperJANET to transfer large datasets such as satellite images and electronic journals, and to allow researchers to have direct personal access to collections of rare and valuable artefacts and documents. Self-directed learning packages are being developed which contain text, still or moving images and audio; packages are available which can be accessed in either a linear instructional or encyclopaedic manner.

The Higher Education Funding Councils have consulted higher education institutions (HEIs) on issues surrounding the exploitation of information systems as a basis for developing a strategy for higher education over the next decade.

Impressive though the power of broadband technology may be, it is important to consider carefully the uses to which it could be put in education. Among the key issues are: content, design, ease of computer interfaces between the content and the learner, the cost of services, connections and applications. What is the 'value added' element that networks bring to education?

In the school sector, the revised (1995) National Curriculum framework for IT requires that pupils at all key stages should be taught the IT skills of handling and communicating information, skills which will be fundamental to the use of superhighways. To promote the twin objectives of using IT to enhance learning and to develop IT skills per se, the Government, since 1988 has supported expenditure of 187Million of expenditure on IT equipment and teacher training in the curriculum use of IT. "Total expenditure on IT in schools has been 4-5 times this amount over the same period" (HMSO, 1995, a). The DFE has also funded City Technology Colleges and Technology Colleges. The Departments of Northern Ireland, Scotland, and Wales have also made substantial investments. The use of education superhighways in schools, if appropriately implemented, could further enrich the curriculum in general and IT capability in particular. Potentially, education superhighways offer a range of significant advantages to the delivery and content of the curriculum.

Current projects being funded in the schools' sector include the following:

The ACTOR project at University of Ulster enables distance teaching by video-conferencing to minority groups in remote Further Education colleges. The "Bytes for Belfast" project is exploring the use of the Internet in improving communication skills and providing information on training opportunities for unemployed school leavers.

A particular challenge will be the development of adequate two-way services to enable rural users to obtain the same interconnectivity as other users. Progress towards defining the uses which rural communities can make of advanced communication technologies, including use for distance learning, is being made under the Kington Connected Community Project in Herefordshire, supported by a number of sponsors including BT and Apple Computers, and by the Government. In Scotland a similar project is being supported by BT and Highlands and Island Enterprise.

At present, the educational value of Internet connection is still being explored. Pilot projects which are assessing their value include the "School Libraries of the Future" project sponsored by DENI, the NCET and the British Library and "Schools On-line" sponsored by Department of Trade and Industry and commercial organisations. Preliminary indications are that the value of Internet connectivity lies in the opportunities it provides to both teachers and learners to develop skills of information handling, experience of electronic communication at a distance, and general network literacy. The NCET has published guidance on the use of Internet in schools and colleges in the document "Highways for Learning".


Superhighways for Education, Consultation Paper on Broadband Communications, HMSO, 1995.

Superhighways for Education - The Way Forward, HMSO, 1995.

Integrated Learning Systems: Phase II Results, NCET, January 1996.

Highways for Learning - The Internet for Schools and Colleges, NCET, February 1995.

Claire Pickles
Teaching and Learning Development Unit

Rae Earnshaw
University of Bradford