E-learning projects and the future competitiveness of UK plc could hang in the balance unless broadband access is improved, an industry think tank has warned.
Point and Click: Learners in the ICT Driving Seat, a report from a government-backed Foresight taskforce, says that although technology has the potential to transform the learning landscape with personalised content and round-the-clock access, broadband access issues means it is still an unworkable dream.
The report warns that as management structures flatten and work requires a high knowledge component, regular training and reskilling will become a priority for organisations.
But conventional systems for delivering education and training will not have the capacity to meet the demands of millions of learners, and e-learning is not yet a viable option because broadband access is too low.
"Broadband access will be an essential part of increasing international economic competitiveness, and is central to meeting the demands and needs of learners in the knowledge economy," the report says.
"Government should recognise the economic and educational priority of investing in access to broadband technology for all learning environments in the UK."
The implications of the report could be huge. According to a study by the European Commission, the better application of new knowledge will account for 70 to 80 per cent of future economic growth.
Newly appointed chairman of the Broadband Stakeholder Group, and former ICL chief executive Keith Todd, told vnunet.com that the deployment of broadband across the whole of the UK is critically important, especially in relation to education.
"It provides huge opportunities to help the whole skills training and lifelong learning development that's been much talked about over recent years," he said. "It is critical to ensure the capacity is there but also to make sure the infrastructure can provide a cost effective platform for services."
Todd, whose appointment as chairman of the industry body that advises the government on its broadband strategy was announced last week, said that although government is responsible for creating the right environment, it is up to the market to take a lead in the debate.
"But in a tough economic market it can take a long time for natural market forces to work, so it could be useful for some intervention to help broadband services work," he said.
But ministers have already ruled out direct investment and instead will encourage suppliers to spend on infrastructure by promising the public sector's combined annual IT budget of £1.7bn as a guaranteed market.
The NHS is on the verge of detailing shortlisted consortia for a project to deliver IT training to all its employees - up to 1.2 million people - in what is believed to be one of the biggest e-learning contracts in the public sector.
The deal means that all NHS staff will be offered free training and testing for the European Computer Driving Licence (ECDL) by March next year, in a move to improve IT literacy and make sure staff are equipped with the IT skills they need.
But project manager George Davies denied that broadband issues were hampering the scheme.
"We're certainly not focusing on a broadband approach. People focus on the technology but if there's no content, it's simply not an issue," he said.
"You need bandwidth if there's a huge population on and off the whole time but we think learning will be more spread out over the 24 hour day," Davies said.
"There's a danger that people can get carried away by the potential capability of broadband rather than focusing on the learning outcome."
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