UK's National Digital Infrastructure 'needs improving'

The education sector's IT infrastructure needs more work, says a government agency, but some believe good progress is being made

The UK Government agency that promotes the use of ICT in schools has admitted that Britain's educational digital infrastructure needs significant improvement.

The British Educational Communications and Technology Agency (Becta) told ZDNet UK that the National Digital Infrastructure (NDI) needs to be more reliable, coherent, and diverse.

"We need to improve the reliability of the infrastructure to increase teacher confidence," said Andy Gorton, senior architect for institutional networks technical policy and standards at Becta.

Becta believes the NDI needs better reliability, affordability, sustainability, and coherence. "The NDI isn't there yet," Gorton admitted, speaking at the BETT trade show earlier this month.

The NDI has four elements: the institutional infrastructure, connectivity, data services and learning services. Each of the elements is at a different stage of progression, according to Becta.

The institutional infrastructure includes the publication and development of technical specifications and self-review tools, and the procurement of infrastructure services. This is an ongoing process, Becta said.

Connectivity is maintained by regional broadband consortiums over the national education network — a system of consortium and local authority networks linked via the JANET backbone. A connectivity standards framework is currently being developed, said a Becta spokeswoman, with "a number of services and applications already being successfully delivered".

Data services — ensuring that schools' IT systems are functionally capable, interoperable, affordable, and designed to deliver effective support to teachers — projects are "proceeding", said Becta.

Local Authorities are responsible, generally for learning services, and are meant to ensure that schools have a unified "learning platform service" including secure email, online learning spaces for pupils, and content management tools for teachers. These services should be in place by 2008.

A spokesperson for Becta said last Friday that significant improvements need to be made. Service providers need to provide greater value for money from providers, and information systems needed to be developed to be more "learner-centric".

Gorton agreed. "The needs of learners aren't always met, and the approach [to learning] is not consistent or cost effective. We need to move to a position where ICT is treated as a utility. It's about the learner being able to learn well, and the teacher being able to teach well."

Becta said it was pleased with the progress of some parts of the NDI, in particular the connectivity target, saying there had been "significant progress in connecting all schools to the Internet via broadband."

The development manager of one of the broadband consortiums felt that the NDI was progressing well towards its desired aims.

"We're going a way towards all of those," said Tim Stirrup, development manager for London Grid for Learning. "London has created a resilient infrastructure, which uses lines for data, VoIP, and videoconferencing. It's fibre-based, so the only constraint is the speed of light. At the flick of a switch we can go from providing a 2Mbps service to 10Mbps, or from 10Mbps up to 100Mbps."

The London service also represents good value for money, claimed Stirrup. "We've saved £80m in the last three years by procuring £120m worth of services for £40m, including connectivity."