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Monday, 2 April, 2001, 16:52 GMT 17:52 UK
Plans for new web learning 'portal'
pupils using multimedia PCs
Multimedia material requires fast net connections
Ministers are considering launching a national public-private partnership to create a web-based education "portal of choice" for England's schools.

As part of an effort to restructure online learning, internet service providers could come within a new quality framework.

To ensure good, fast internet connections, advisers recommend fibre-optic local links to schools - while warning that "the annual cost could be very substantial".

The government is inviting people's comments on the recommendations, made in a report on the future of the National Grid for Learning (NGfL) by consultants NM Rothschild.

The report says teachers, pupils and parents face problems in locating high quality learning resources online - so a single "portal of choice" is "essential" to raise standards.

Commercial expertise

It says this should build on the content developed already for the NGfL and Department for Education schools web sites.

But it argues that private involvement is needed to do this - not so much to bring in new money, but to draw upon companies' expertise and to provide incentives for continued improvement.

At present, the NGfL provides little more than a huge list of links to various educational offerings by outside organisations - some free, some requiring subscription.

A key feature of the new portal would be an independent guide to what is available.

This would "ensure that parents and teachers can easily assess the quality and the appropriate use of electronic material", the Rothschild report argues.

Broadband access

It says internet service providers - the companies which provide links to the internet - should be brought under government regulation.

"This will ensure that schools all have high quality access to online content and applications such as video-conferencing."

A key issue for delivering educational material to schools - such as the digital curriculums which the BBC and Granada have just been commissioned to develop - is "broadband" net connections that can deliver good quality video quickly to a large number of users.

Rothschild's says: "The analysis suggests that in the medium term and in most areas, fibre is the most cost-effective means of achieving the bandwidth that schools will need to be able to deliver broadband to the classroom.

"Nonetheless, if by 2005 secondary schools were to use 34Mb/s and primary schools 8Mb/s, the annual cost could be very substantial."

It proposes that the main telecom companies should be asked to quote for connecting all schools in a local education authority area to a central point.

The links would be offered to internet service providers at an agreed price, and schools could buy connections from those providers - with a promise that schools in different parts of the country would pay similar prices.

As part of this, the government should try to negotiate free or cut-price home access to educational material.

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