School resources are increasingly available via the family PC – and even the games console

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The Independent Online

There was a time in the not so distant past where IT lessons at school consisted of switching on a rather large looking box, banging in a password and practising your very best typing skills for 45 minutes until your wpm rate had increased significantly. Haven't things changed? Now, students can expect technology to permeate every aspect of their school life and very soon it will be following them home, as the line between school and home life increasingly blurs.

The Government's Building Schools for the Future (BSF) initiative has been the main driver for ensuring information and communication technology (ICT) provision in schools is as far reaching and advanced as possible in the next few years, injecting substantial funding into strategies, hardware and software. But how do we keep up? And will this extra money make a significant difference to the educational experience?

One of the major challenges for ICT in schools is ensuring value for money. By its very nature, technology is constantly developing, which presents a problem for ICT planners keen to equip schools with infrastructure that can be flexible to changing environments.

"The pace of technology development over the past couple of years has been breathtaking," says Steve Smith, director of learning at ICT solution provider, Ramesys. "The exciting thing, though, is that the technologies that are emerging are for the first time in synergy with the way education is developing. Even some of the technology that we are putting in through BSF will be outmoded quickly, so there is a real need to come up with solutions that are flexible," he says. "For example, most BSF projects require some sort of e-mail system but the reality is that most children aren't using e-mail very much; they want something even more instant."

While planners wrestle with meeting current demands and trying to predict future technologies, Colin Payne, innovation director for the educational consultancy The Place Group says that care needs to be taken when deciding which equipment is really necessary. "There is a great deal of importance placed on technology kit at the moment. This means that people are keen to put laptops on every desk and interactive whiteboards in every classroom. There is no doubt that a co-ordinated ICT system should be the backbone of any institution. However, the problem is that the kit becomes just a spend and there can be very little thought about its integration and use."

A key component of the BSF programme is the introduction of centralised servers for groups of schools rather than the individual arrangements most schools have to run at present. While bringing data all together has thrown up issues of independence, with schools concerned about losing control, it has also given planners the ability to provide efficient ICT support for many schools in a cost-effective way.

"The current projects for BSF are taking some of the technological complexity out of individual schools by putting central services in place, such as a data centre that's responsible for groups of schools," says Smith.

"At the moment, most big secondary schools have a large number of servers that are running a lot of technology inside the school building. That is expensive and technicians in schools are often challenged by trying to keep all of this sophisticated technology running. By centralising it we can make sure that the servers are more reliable, are protected from viruses and save money."

He says that personalised learning is the catchphrase of the moment, and some planners believe that ICT provision should be the key driver in ensuring that it is delivered.

"Creating a Managed Learning Environment (MLE) is central to personalising education," says Darren Lemon, managing director of education at Northgate Information Solutions. "The MLE brings together lots of different content that is created by the learner and integrates that with many different applications, such as library, cashless catering and building management systems. Schools can then get a holistic view of each learner."

This use of ICT means that schools can take into account each child's individual learning style, how they learn best and how they can be motivated.

Another major aspect of the BSF programme is enabling students and teachers to share information within school and between schools. This has already been achieved to some extent with the use of learning platforms, which make it possible to access resources and information from outside the school.

At Rawlett Community Sports College in Tamworth they are already feeling the benefits of this kind of system. "Our students have a high level of access to school resources from outside of the building," says Stephen Peace, director of information resources for learning at Rawlett. "On a practical level, it means they can start something in school and then go home, turn on their PlayStation 3 and continue with it.

"As a teacher, if a student is absent from one of my lessons they can still access the work I'm doing from home, so they don't fall behind, and if I'm away from school, my students can e-mail me with any queries or problems that they have – it opens up a whole world of opportunities."

There has been much discussion about how parents can become more involved in their child's education over the internet. From checking attendance records and coursework modules studied, to homework diaries and the nutritional value of school meals, parents will be able to log on and assess progress in real time.

Ian Smith is a governor at Rawlett and has seen his five children educated at the school. He supports the idea of being able to regularly access this kind of information. "It is useful for performance information to be available online because sometimes children can be less than forthcoming when you are asking them about school directly. Also, having the ability to e-mail teachers would be invaluable."

However, it isn't just parents and children who will benefit from the strides forward in ICT; the wider community will also be able to use the technology, putting the school at the heart of the local population. With learners able to access school resources from outside, they can continue studying throughout their adult life.

'Interactive TV could be used to engage children'

What can we expect ICT in schools to look like in the future?

"I don't think we have grasped the opportunity that gaming has to offer in education," says Steve Smith, director of learning at Ramesys. "There is a lot of research going on to see if you can capture what makes a good game and try to bring that inside the educational experience. Also, interactive TV may be used more as a way of engaging children who haven't got access to the internet at home."

Colin Payne, innovation director for The Place Group, also believes that the home will play an increasing role in the educational experience.

"Schools will lose their reliance on a school base in the future, so the building itself will become less important. By embracing more personalised and accessible technologies students can learn more from home and it will give them more freedom."

Darren Lemon, managing director of education at Northgate Information Solutions, predicts that there will be more development of actual learning technology in the future as opposed to technology that just delivers traditional content.

"Until now there has been a focus on getting information that can be taught in a traditional way available through technology to help engage learners, however there is now a shift towards creating standalone learning technology, which is very exciting."