BECTA (British Educational Communications and Technology Agency) is the government agency specifically charged with promoting the integration of ICT in the UK education system. BECTA works primarily with the DCSF (Department for Children, Schools and Families) and BIS (Department for Business, Innovation and Skills) to support their activities, and cooperates directly with schools, local authorities and industry.
Its remit and areas of expertise are defined as follows :
• Advice to government in BECTA areas of expertise
• Coordination of e-education strategy
• Analysis and Research
• Strategic partner in initiatives and implementation programmes
BECTA is based in Coventry.
Since 1997, transforming education through ICT has been one of the programme priorities of the British government. Between 1997 and 2007 more than £5 billion were invested in a wide range of strategies and projects in this field. As under earlier governments, economic and educational policies were closely aligned, but in contrast to previous governments, ICTs have played a key role in this alignment.
ICT policy and strategy in the UK in general and England in particular, developed gradually focusing on three areas, namely infrastructure/connectivity, content, and training, which is divided into several phases. 3 In May 2010, the incoming coalition government announced a package of public sector which included the closure of Becta by March 2011. Some of Becta’s responsability will be transferred to the Department for Education and others will be taken up by other organisations.
The National Grid for Learning – NGfL
In 1997, the Government published a consultation paper, Connecting the Learning Society: National Grid
for Learning, in which the objectives of the NGfL network are set out as follows :
• provide a national focus and agenda for harnessing new technologies to raise educational standards, and improve quality of life and Britain’s international competitiveness, especially the new literacy and numeracy targets;
• remove barriers to learning, ensuring opportunities for access for all, including those in isolated areas and those with special needs;
• provide high quality software, content and services which are relevant and differentiated according to needs;
• stimulate public/private partnerships, bringing together the best of private sector creativity and the highest standards of public service; ensure that nothing is provided at public expense, which otherwise could be provided commercially of good quality and reasonable cost.
The NGfL initiative was seen as a way to exploit the potential of ICT to improve the quality of education through the provision of infrastructure, content and training. The platform offered a service and an infrastructure network providing access to educational content and an array of support services for teaching, learning, training and management. It was also accessible from home, where it could be used for homework, research, home-school links, career development, job search and retraining.
New Opportunities Lottery-Fund Training (NOF)
The New Opportunities Lottery-Fund Training initiative, launched in 1998 and associated with the NGfL initiative aimed to “raise the standard of pupils’ achievements by raising the expertise of serving teachers in the use of ICT in subject teaching to the level expected of newly qualified teachers.” It targeted all teachers and librarians in UK primary and secondary schools and the training was provided by local training providers.
Implemented in 1999-2002, the programme received an allocation of £230 million. In England, 395,000 teachers received training at a per capita cost of £450.
The learning outcomes expected by the Department for Education and Skills (DfES) were in particular:
• knowledge and understanding of the contribution that the various aspects of ICT can bring to the teaching
of specific subjects;
• effective planning, including the use of ICT in course preparation and in the selection and organisation of ICT resources;
• use of ICT for whole-class teaching;
• assessment of learning material by students when ICT has been successfully integrated into education;
• use of ICT to keep abreast of latest developments, share best practices and reduce bureaucracy.
Evaluations conducted at the beginning of the initiative revealed problems to be addressed in terms of teachers’ relatively low IT skills, training models that did not reflect local needs, difficulties facing teachers in online training, and quality sacrificed to meet deadlines. However, quality assurance implemented by the various agencies in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland enabled these problems to be overcome, leading to high success rates for the initiatives.
Curriculum OnLine (COL)
The availability of digital resources to assist classroom activities has been at the heart of ICT strategy. At the same time, the Government pledged to make its digital content industry one of the world leaders.
To this end, in 2002 it launched the Curriculum Online (COL) initiative, again in the framework of the NGfL strategy. The COL website gave teachers access to a wide range of digital resources to support their teaching. These resources were produced commercially by accredited organisations; in this initiative, schools in England received funding in the form of online learning credits to buy digital content on the COL website. Between 2003 and 2006, £100 million were released each year.
An evaluation of COL in 2002 considered three aspects: educational impact, operational efficiency, and impact on the sector. The findings highlighted inadequate communication infrastructure, as well as problems with website design and with industry’s understanding of online e-learning credits. The study also highlighted many positive aspects, including increased use of digital resources by teachers in planning their lessons and in class, better understanding by teachers and pupils of the contribution of digital resources to supporting diverse learning styles, increased centralisation of digital content purchasing among secondary schools, and higher sales by content providers.
The initiative ended in 2008.
Harnessing Technology: Transforming Learning and Children’s Services
The main objectives of this strategy, launched in 2005, were to:
• transform teaching and learning and help to improve outcomes for children and young people, through shared ideas, more engaging lessons and online help for professionals
• engage ‘hard to reach’ learners, with special needs support, more motivating learning, and more choice about how and where to learn
• build an open accessible system, with more information and services online for parents and carers, children, young people, adult learners and employers; and more cross-organisation collaboration to improve personalised support and choice
• achieve greater efficiency and effectiveness, with online research, access to shared ideas and lesson plans, improved systems and processes in children’s services, shared procurement and easier administration
To achieve these goals, six priorities were identified:
• an integrated online information service for all citizens
• integrated online personal support for children and learners
• a collaborative approach towards personalised learning
• a high quality ICT training and support package for practitioners
• a leadership and development package for organisational capability in ICT
• a common digital infrastructure to support transformation and reform.
A budget of £640 million (about 720 million euros) was assigned to this initiative for the period 2008-2011.
In the United Kingdom, content has been – and still is – perceived as central to the integration of ICTs in education and as a means of encouraging teachers to use them. In this light, the changing patterns of distribution, access and use of content and how this evolution is reflected in the content market in the United Kingdom, are of particular importance.
The first services implemented were financed by public funds and were freely accessible to end users. However, there has been a move towards mixed services or even exclusively commercial services set up by private companies.
Federations of suppliers offer resources to schools and many of them offer substantial discounts to local education authorities that agree to buy licenses for all schools in their area. These economies of scale have the effect of broadening the range of materials available to schools at a lower price than for individual purchases. Regional Broadband Consortia are groups of local authorities established to procure cost-effective broadband connectivity for schools in England. Initially, there were ten RBCs covering 139 of the 150 local authorities. In 2006, they were extended to represent the ten learning networks in England, C2K in Northern Ireland, GLOW in Scotland, and the Welsh National Grid for Learning. The 13 consortia together form the National Education Network, NEN. This provides schools with access to a range of online services and downloadable content from the consortia, for pupils in Key Stages 1-4. This content is developed in accordance with the national curriculum and can be customised for use in other countries. Much of the content has been developed by local education authorities and teachers. It is available free to teachers and support organisations.
Regional Broadband Consortia (RBCs) (source : BECTA)
By way of examples, these are some of the initiatives implemented in the field of digital resources:
• National Digital Resource Bank (NDRB, www.nwlg.org/projects.html) is a national bank of digital resources, managed by the North-West Grid for Learning, which covers various areas of the national curriculum. The resources are available under perpetual licenses free of copyright. They have been classified and tagged to be used on learning platforms compliant with SCORM (Sharable Content Object Reference Model) e-learning standards. Members are invited to contribute by publishing content and to host other publicly funded digital resources for sharing.
• Global Grid for Learning (GGfL, www.globalgridforlearning.com) is a worldwide network for learning, which offers content from publishers and other content providers around the world, representing thousands of resources. This is a subscription service of Cambridge University Press, which offers over a million digital resources in a variety of formats, downloadable free of copyright, from thousands of resources from around the world. Through this network, schools can access the resources of hundreds of museums and art galleries, photographers and other artists all over the world, whose information is accessible for educational purposes.
• The Joint Information Systems Collections (JISC, www.jisccollections.ac.uk): this collections service of the Joint Information Services Committee (JISC) is a central negotiation point, issuing licenses on a national scale for electronic resources for post-compulsory and higher education. JISC Collections has been invited to extend the scope of its services to all primary and secondary schools in the UK, in partnership with BECTA, which would provide funding (resources in the pilot phase: Education Image Gallery, Grove Art Online, Grove Music Online, The Guardian and Observer Digital Archive, History Study Centre, Keesing’s World News Archive, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford Language Dictionaries Online, Oxford Reference Online, Science Resource Center and The Times Digital Archive).
• Online Distribution Engine (ODE) (www.odeworld.co.uk/) is a federation of British producers of commercial content, described approximately as the iTunes® of digital learning content. It requires no subscription, pre-registration or license. Registration and use of ODE are free and the user is invited to purchase only the content he/she needs, which can be downloaded and used offline. ODE aims to give teachers access to digital content (for purchase or rental) where they can find videos, worksheets, lesson plans, games, cartoons, tools, interactive activities, files audio and other ebooks. Teachers can also create lists of digital content to meet specific teaching situations that revise small parts of the curriculum. The content comes from a whole range of educational content publishers who have agreed to their content being distributed in a separately billed sub-divided format. Each video, Flash game, audio file, spreadsheet, exam paper, presentation or interactive tool can be sampled, purchased and downloaded. Much of the content is also SCORM compliant and can be downloaded and stored in a learning platform or virtual learning environment.
• Film & Sound Online (www.filmandsound.ac.uk/) offers a set of collections of films, videos and audio files, funded by the JISC Committee. Hundreds of hours of high quality content are available for download in their entirety or in part, to be used free of charge in learning, teaching and research. Access requires registration.
It should be noted that in the area of content and standards, BECTA (the British Educational Communications and Technology Agency), with the help of partners, has developed a British metadata standard based on the IEEE standard Learning Object Metadata (LOM) used by content providers to tag their content.4 Many learning platforms have integrated this vocabulary into their metadata systems so that resources produced by teachers can be tagged and easily identified by other users. Although the terms used in this standard were created to reflect the needs of the national curriculum, they can be customised to match the curricula of different regions. Meanwhile, ongoing developments in SCORM standards are closely monitored by BECTA and compliance with these standards is one of the priority characteristics assigned to their learning platforms.