The IT industry has thrown its weight behind yesterday?s launch of UK NetYear, the government-backed IT organisation that aims to get all schools on the Internet by 2002.
NetYear - founded by Cisco, ICL, Sun Microsystems, and The Daily Telegraph, and backed by a wide range of sponsors - promises to revolutionise teaching by equipping teachers with IT skills.
David Wimpress from ICL, executive chairman of UK NetYear, said: ?Our position is unique. All natural competitors in the IT sector are working together for the good of society.?
At the launch, 23 schools across the UK were linked up through videoconferencing and via the UK NetYear Web site to demonstrate how technology can help make the government?s vision of a 'National Grid for Learning' reality in all of the UK?s 32,000 schools.
This will be achieved through what prime minister Tony Blair called ?the biggest public-private partnership in any education system anywhere in the world?. This will involve government, education authorities, business and local communities, all helping schools get to grips with IT.
?With an estimated 60 per cent of all computers in schools being out-of-date and the need to train 80 per cent of the UK?s 450,000 teachers in the use of IT, we have a huge challenge,? admitted Wimpress.
UK NetYear was inspired by the US NetDay initiative, which focused on providing schools with free or low priced cabling kit. Sally Pocock, head of communications at UK NetYear, said: ?The government wanted the name NetYear to show it is continuous, all year round commitment.?
But UK NetYear will not be donating computers, claiming schools have their own IT budgets, which have recently been boosted by #100 million.
The IT suppliers aim to reap benefits from participation in the scheme, particularly in terms of skills, and acquainting future buyers with their kit at an early age.
Pocock explained: ?Now there is a gap of several years between a young person leaving school or university and becoming proficient in IT skills. In the course of a career someone may be expected to retrain six or seven times. The economical solution to the problem is to get skills online. The IT companies want kids to have IT skills they can use in the future.?
John Tutcher of Sun Microsystems shares this view. ?It is enlightened self interest. We invest money and time in what will eventually become a large marketplace. If we invest in education there is a better chance pupils will use us as they grow up. We have to make sure we are in the best position as a vendor when they become decision makers.?
Despite the emphasis on future IT skills, Pocock stressed that UK NetYear was ?not to do with learning how to use computers, but learning through computers". Teachers will have the opportunity to learn IT skills for free through a CD-Rom called ?Computers Don?t Bite: Teachers?, provided by BBC Education. They can also gain training from IT volunteers.
Over 50 household name companies - including retailers such as Tesco - will become involved in giving financial backing or help in kind to the project. Companies will be permitted to advertise to schools, but subject to controls that ensure suitability for children.
One of the Silicon Valley backers signing up yesterday was Excite, the search engine company, which committed to providing a free Web-based email service, Excite Post, for schools. It will start with the 6,000 schools that already have Internet connection and aims to register one million students a year.
Dela Quist, project leader for UK NetYear at Excite, stressed that it was important to get involved despite the shortage of computers in schools. ?A lot of people are taking an all or nothing approach with the attitude, ?there?s no point unless every school is hooked up to the Internet at every desk.? But you have to start at whatever position you?re at and email is a catalyst to becoming unafraid of the Web.?
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