Taking learning to the community

Karl Cushing reports on how the UK's largest networked environment is changing teaching countywide.

Karl Cushing reports on how the UK's largest networked environment is changing teaching countywide.

A project in Lincolnshire has created the UK's largest networked learning environment, connecting 450 sites, 106,000 users and 12,000 PCs, in a bid to transform the teaching and learning process through increased use of ICT.

The Netlinc project began in 1998 as a local response to the National Grid for Learning initiative. However, what began as a programme to integrate educational resources for primary and secondary schools in the region has since expanded to include libraries, children's homes and mobile learning units, creating "a community grid for learning".

Geoff Chandler, the local education authority's ICT project manager, says that Netlinc has developed into a county-wide secure network, allowing users to "collaborate, communicate and interoperate". User groups are given their own distinct interfaces to shared services, online tools and digital content. Teachers and pupils can access content and teaching plans as well as create and upload their own content. The idea is to merge e-learning with traditional classroom-based teaching methods.

Chandler says the county has "set a precedent for integration and networking in education" through the project and has helped to demonstrate how technology has become an integral part of primary, secondary and lifelong learning.

"With the deployment and management of the network, students and the community have access to the best online learning we can provide, in addition to providing Lincolnshire with an excellent platform to achieve government NGfL and life-long learning targets," says Chandler.

Another aim is to combat isolation and social exclusion in outlying rural areas in the county. As well as trying to link up remote areas there are 10 mobile learning units - essentially flight cases containing laptops, scanners, digital cameras and printers - spread throughout the county.

Currently 152 of the 450 sites are connected by broadband, with the rest connected via ISDN. The goal is to have everyone connected to broadband by 2005. Half of the sites are centrally managed and the other half manage their own networks. The next stage of the project will see more PCs and sites connected using broadband, further expansion of the platform into the Lincolnshire community and the upgrading of the network from the present Windows NT environment.

Chandler stresses that Netlinc represents the coming together of lots of separate projects with different funding streams including government, schools, the local education authority and the New Opportunities Fund. Linking projects has helped to lower total cost of ownership and get best value, says Chandler. The fund has also helped ensure interoperability and drive standards while keeping hardware failure at just 0.2%.

Netlinc uses a managed e-learning environment called Assimilate from software firm Ramesys, which allows both teachers and learners to collaborate and communicate with each other.


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