Friday, January 04, 2008

BETT story for MyNews India

A revised version will be sent to OhmyNews after the event

Schools Minister suggests parents can solve UK bandwidth problems
BETT chance to compare rich internet applications

Jim Knight, UK Schools Minister, has told The Guardian that parents should now assume responsibility for providing IT resources at home, including web access. "We need to get to a point where in the same way when they start school the expectation is you've [the parent] got to find a school uniform, provide them with something to write with and probably these days a calculator, and in secondary school some sports gear - well, you add to that some IT." The statement came in an interview with Will Woodward who reports that "parents could be required to provide their children with high-speed internet access under plans being drawn up by ministers in partnership with some of the country's leading IT firms.",,2235303,00.html

Talks continue with companies such as Microsoft, BT, Sky, Virgin and RM to help close the widening achievement gap between pupils from the richest and poorest families. More than one million UK children have no access to a computer at home. The issues will be discussed at next week's BETT show on educational technology at Olympia. Last year Jim Knight announced at BETT a Home Access Taskforce following a study by Intel. Dell and RM on "universal home access".

The implication is that access to the web is now accepted as part of a learning environment. Jim Knight made the case for better web access-
"Obviously you need to make that affordable, you need to make that universal otherwise you just advantage those who can afford it. To some extent that's the case at the moment, where 50% of homes have got IT broadband, but they are hugely powerful educational tools ... we know from the research evidence the difference that information technology can make."

Much educational design has been intended to restrict access to unreliable information and to avoid time wasting through networking. Products at the 2008 BETT will include Autology, based on corporate technology from Autonomy, which is limited to 12,000 websites believed to be "credible". As reported in Personal Computer World, Bloxx will demonstrate how to "block bandwidth-hogging social-networking sites" and also block "proxy servers that allow crafty students to get on the web."

There has yet to be any official statement in 2008 about the future use of open source software in UK schools. Many people at home are using Firefox and Open Office even if Linux is rare on the desktop. This is one way that web access is easier to afford. The statement from Jim Knight seems still mainly concerned with negotiating for discounts from existing sources, suggesting that "the government could in effect procure millions of new customers for them".

Last year BECTA, an advisory body, suggested delay in accepting Windows Vista and new versions of Office. There was also some support for Open Source. Asked by ZD NET about alternatives to Microsoft, Stephen Lucey said "The majority of functionality is not used in schools' typical use. But if schools make use of the additional functionality in Office 2007 then it is a decision for them".,1000000121,39285734,00.htm

However, in October 2007 BECTA complained about Microsoft to the Office of Fair Trading claiming "alleged anti-competitive practices by Microsoft in the schools software marketplace and in relation to Microsoft's approach to document interoperability." The licences available sometimes have the effect that cost differences are not easy to identify when considering choices. "Document Interoperability" is probably a reference to the Open Document Format used in Open Office and supported as an international standard by ISO. However there is no apparent change in approach to open source. "Open source is a separate issue, and schools can make their own decision," said a Becta spokesman to ZD Net.,1000000121,39290148,00.htm

"This is a mini-step in the right direction, but what Becta is actually doing is keeping Microsoft in front of the market to the exclusion of alternatives," said Mark Taylor of the Open Source Consortium pressure group."They're in danger of looking a bit silly, giving the market a non-recommendation and showing a lack of direction."

There are critics of the BETT event who notice the costs involved for the major stands at Olympia. Graham Brown-Martin on Handheld Learning describes BETT as "an event where the combined investment of all the participating companies, attendees, etc could probably fund the provision of a million learners with a device and connectivity. Or even a couple of new schools." There is some enthusiasm for the event, but then Brown-Martin answers his own question. "Where would we be without the annual pilgrimage to Olympia following the holiday season?" Possibly at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, seen as a bit more "glamorous". The Handheld Learning article continues to make a case that it is consumer electronics driving the home adoption of ICT as the Web is known in education.

I would certainly agree that the most interesting stands are not always the largest. Open Source software will probably be on the balcony of the smaller hall, somewhere near Open Forum Europe. But BETT is now the only UK computer event that fills most of the space at Olympia. There is now a trend for companies to organise their own events that sometimes appear to be a closed world. BETT may be the only chance in 2008 to compare the new approaches to "Rich Internet Applications" from Adobe and Microsoft. Both are moving away from a web based on text. Video and animation are seen as a way forward. Computerworld has reported that during 2008 Microsoft will compete with Flash through Silverlight.

At BETT 2007 Microsoft announced Grava, for creating content. My impression was that this was a sort of bundle of Expression tools adjusted for education. There has not been much news since that I can find.

Adobe are promoting Creative Suite so there will be some familiarity in schools. There may be more emphasis on coding at BETT as the future of applications depends on support from developers.

Moodle and other open source developers will be there. My guess is that a high proportion of developers will be considering open source options. the BECTA concern with "Document Interoperability" is only part of this discussion.

Jim Knight is not the only UK government minister concerned about bandwidth. Chris Williams in The Register reported a "next generation broadband summit" hosted by Stephen Timms, Competitiveness Minister at the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform (BERR). Knight takes the view that the meeting decided "that they definitely need to start thinking around what to do about the UK's creaking internet infrastructure at some unspecified point in the future (perhaps)." There will be a vision statement and a further meeting later in 2008. Ofcom chief Ed Richards made it clear that the regulator won't be intervening to encourage early investment. He said: "Ofcom's role is to deliver a robust regulatory framework allowing industry to deploy when there is a clear business case for doing so."

This is the same sort of approach that minimises a role for government as such in providing a web environment for learning. My own opinion is that statements such as "the UK will be not too far behind in the knowledge economy by such a such a date" are actually to be welcomed as something relevant might then happen. At least UK parents have been warned about the dangers of the digital divide. They have only themselves to blame.