DTI scare tactics on schools

As head of IT at the school in which I am assistant headteacher, I responded to a mailshot from the DTI about the possible problems that computers may face when we hit the year 2000. By return post came a pack with the heading, "Don't Let Your Business Be Eclipsed" [below]. If anyone considers that to be alarmist, they should be advised not to read the contents, where the words "threat to your business" are used repeatedly. Other emotive terms such as chaos, vulnerability, turmoil and even "expensive lawsuits" are thrown in - and that's just on the opening page.

There is a fact sheet included in the pack, headed: "Your questions answered". In this, a number of questions are posed but not actually answered. "It all depends" is the stock phrase and the constant threat that "most businesses are likely to have some kind of problem" does lead to the inevitable conclusion: we are about to be sold something.

To solve the problem of "The Millennium Bomb", we are urged to buy from the Central Computer and Telecommunications Agency (CCTA) - a government body - a series of six booklets costing pounds 320, if paid in advance, or pounds 360 if subsequently invoiced.

As an alternative, the CCTA will supply a CD-Rom of the book, prepaid, for pounds 517, including VAT. That, of course, is for a single-user licence. If up to 16 people in your organisation want access to the information, the price is almost pounds 7,500.

The "volumes" claim to provide the information required by the various people in an organisation, from top management through to those at the sharp end. They say they have the answers, but if I am to believe the fact sheets that arrived on my desk, I doubt that 400 pages will offer anything more than vague generalities when talking about systems as diverse as PCs, traffic lights and air-conditioning units.

As for me, I'll wait and see because I don't have several hundred quid to waste on something I may or may not need. What I had hoped for, when I sent off for information, was that my government, to whom I am paying substantial taxes, would offer helpful advice. Instead, I am faced with scare tactics, intended to rip me off and make a lot of cash for the DTI on the supposed basis that industry can afford it - or cannot afford not to.

Brian Mathieson

Assistant Headteacher

Blantyre High School

mathieson@msn.com

Online training: the way forward

Eva Pascoe's enthusiasm for online courses (Network, 19 August) identifies some of the real potential for online technology. It is unfortunate that her enthusiasm for indulging in a spot of unjustified university-bashing has then distorted the real situation.

Yes, online courses are a practical means of updating skills in some areas, but there are a number of factors that need to be considered, and which were conveniently ignored in her article. An examination of the UCLA pages that she praises reveals that almost all of the 45 online courses are on topics that: a) have nothing whatever to do with computing skills (Astronomy, Business Writing, American Culture); b) contain material that will not date rapidly and which is not dependent upon the whims of software suppliers in issuing new versions of their products.

So why berate computer science departments for not providing such courses when in reality there are no real equivalents in the US pages that she praises so highly? (As an added point, I do not think that any computer science department would want to argue that the skills for designing web pages are entirely computer science. Skills such as graphic design and cognitive modelling are probably much more important.)

So why do UK universities not exploit this market? (A fair point that the article raises, even if it is then trivialised by being treated as a possible solution to the present problems of chronic underfunding). Can I suggest two major reasons.

The first is the investment that is required. Developing a good online course is a substantial task. While "English Grammar and Usage" (one of the UCLA offerings) is likely to have a long lifetime and require little in the way of "maintenance", topics that Eva Pascoe identifies, such as CAD development, are both more difficult to develop (because of the need for much greater use of graphics and imaging) and are also likely to need continual updates in order to keep them in step with system changes. Indeed, the wide variety of platforms and operating systems currently available also makes it difficult to ensure that such a course is going to be widely applicable.

The second reason is that universities as a whole are more concerned with teaching generic problem-solving skills rather than with the tool- specific skills such as would be produced via such courses. I believe that this is right and proper - part of the task of a university education is to lay down the foundations for the lifelong development of the individual, rather than simply to teach skills alone. Unfortunately, much of UK industry and commerce has shown continual reluctance to accept any responsibility for providing the training that will then map these more generic skills to their specific needs.

One only has to look at the adverts in Network+ to see this problem. In what other professional discipline would we find such detailed skill- related specifications when giving requirements for a post, taking such forms as SQL and Oracle 7?

Our own experience, reflected elsewhere, is that the short-course market is a volatile one, further complicated by the continual updating of software systems. The cost of keeping a course that teaches actual computing skills up to date is quite high, and the investment involved represents a level of risk that most of us cannot really afford.

So where might online technology be applied successfully to help meet the needs for IT-related skills? The complications of teaching skills such as programming probably render these less practical options for delivery via current online technologies. However, there are very many areas where staff may need to update a skill (moving from Oracle 7 to Oracle 8; transferring programming skills learnt with Pascal to writing C, etc), for which the basic paradigm already familiar to the student remains unchanged, but where new features and syntax may need to be mastered.

These certainly offer potential for online course development, but there obviously needs to be a business case for developing such units as well as a technical one - is UK industry yet ready to pay for this? Evidence so far, including the low investment levels in R&D, suggests that the differences with the US context are more than just who gets the stock options.

Professor David Budgen

Department of Computer Science

Keele University

db@cs.keele.ac.uk

Why it couldn't be fibre-optic

I read the article by Milly Jenkins on Hip97 (Network+, 12 August). Not a bad article, but could someone explain to the author that the network was not fibre-optic. A network that size in fibre-optics would cost more than all the other equipment on the campsite put together (including cars, microwave link and power supplies).

One of the visitors

Wolfbrother@earthling.net

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