A unique state of the art technology centre, aimed at promoting the learning and understanding of information technology, is set to open in the UK in October, with heavy financial backing from Microsoft.
Championed by Wolverhampton University, ICL and Microsoft, Learning Lab will be entirely funded by the IT industry.
Some 20 partners are already on board, including Cisco, which will provide a broadband network, and Fujitsu, which will install its latest flat plasma screens.
With a skeleton staff of four, Learning Lab will be open to organisations from private companies to local education authorities. It will be equipped with 30 workstations and at least four servers. It will be capable of handling broadband video on demand so that people can learn online about all aspects of IT, from hardware to software to communications technologies.
Professor Stephen Molyneux, director of the Delta Institute, University of Wolverhampton who helped kick start Learning Lab said it would become, "a European centre of technology excellence demonstrating the latest technologies and showing how they can be used in learning environments across the spectrum from schools to the workplace."
Alan Teece, general manager for education at ICL, said the scope for research is enormous: "Cisco will use it to judge the impact of different networking technologies on mobile communications. Teachers can use it to learn about educational software including collaborative teaching."
Molyneux said: "The approach is collaborative. It is non profit making. Any surplus money generated will be used to fund research fellows to research learning technologies."
Molyneux is in talks with government over who will publicly unveil Learning Lab on 11 October at its site at the University of Wolverhampton's Telford campus. A senior government minister is expected to attend, although Molyneux pointed out that government had so far contributed nothing to the scheme.
Microsoft, ICL and Wolverhampton University will sit on a management board, but senior civil servants from the Department for Education and Employment and the Department Trade and Industry will be asked to sit on an advisory panel that will also include representatives from the University for Industry and the National Grid for Learning.
Molyneux said: "I'd like government to feed into the board, but we need support for interactive collaborative teaching. As a taxpayer, I have seen many projects reinvent the wheel. We need centres of excellence that focus on real problems and feed back into the industry."
Teece said that the centre would cost £300,000 to £400,000 per annum to run and that start up costs are in excess of £100,000. ICL's own contribution will be £35,000.
Teece said that charges for Learning Lab's use would vary: "Companies will be charged for use of facilities, but there will be cheap rates to local education authorities."
By the end of the year, there are plans to link at broadband all 85 schools in the Telford and Wrekin authority.
"It will be the first LEA in the country with a capacity bandwidth of 155 Mbytes," said Teece. "There is the potential for the director for education to address all the schools at once in full motion video."
If it is successful, there are plans to replicate Learning Lab in other European countries such as Sweden.
Microsoft said it was not ready to comment on Learning Lab before the October launch.
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