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Clarke: Demonstrate what ICT can do for teaching and learning post 16

In the keynote to the annual JISC Conference at The International Convention Centre in Birmingham, UK education secretary Charles Clarke outlined his priorities for elearning in the Further / Higher Education sector. In essence: make sure everyone is on board first, then move forward.

Those priorities constituted quite a list, with issues literally ranging from local network access provision to distance education in the developing world. Nor was it just the usual fine words and high ideals.

Ergo the first priority; Clarke has been in office for only four months, and found to his dismay that not absolutely everyone in the sector had an email address yet. So if you don't, you can get in touch, and he'll make sure that something is sorted out.

You'd hope that sorting out email connectivity is basically a mopping-up exercise. Hence the fact that, as far as the Secretary is concerned, the main priority is demonstrating to every educator in the sector exactly what difference ICT can make to everyday teaching and learning. The priority is not just a reflection of the importance of getting practitioners on board, but also of the fact that it is "the hardest, most complex problem". As was amply demonstrated during the Q & A session after the keynote; a member of the audience asked how the Secretary thought we could "stop the young from deskilling the old, while stopping the old from discouraging the young". The answer, incidentely, was that you can't stop change, and that partnership was called for.

As an analysis of the present state of ICT in education, this emphasis on demonstrable effect passes muster; the time that computer technology, even internet-borne technology, could be passed off as so cutting edge that you couldn't question it is well behind us. Yet the delivery -if not the content- of an awful lot of courses and modules in colleges and universities today rather closely resembles the way they where delivered twenty years ago. Not necessarily a bad thing, of course, but also an indication that a lot of educators aren't yet convinced of the benefits of VLEs or any other educational technology.

However that may be, since this is education, the relative merits of Clarke's analysis are literally academic; what he says gets funded, and therefore goes. Hence the focussed expressions of his JISC hosts.

The other five odd priorities outlined by Clarke resemble each other rather closely: they are all about access. Primarily increasing (network) access to colleges and universities by schools, which further emphasises the lifelong learning direction outlined by the recent HE white paper. Commending JISC, the continuing importance of access to international research networks was emphasised.

Other access that needs improvement is to cutting edge research by the market, and to general university and college know-how by their local community. Access to the present state of research by interested parties was mentioned separately, and as quite a priority- some hints there of a frustrated Secretary of Education hunting for a single state-of-the-art portal to individual disciplines.

Lastly, the Open University got a commendation for providing international access to UK education via distance learning. This is the bit where the lofty ideals came in: the general humanitarian impetus of providing education rather than crisis management as a model for development. Commendable stuff, of course, but one wonders whether the not-so-rich would not be better off with simple, extensible and sustainable tools to shape their own education.

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