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WALES: THE E-LEARNING COUNTRY

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'E-learning is central to achieving our goal of making lifelong learning an everyday reality for the people of Wale...
'E-learning is central to achieving our goal of making lifelong learning an everyday reality for the people of Wales' was the message from Jane Davidson, minister for education and lifelong learning when she opened the International Conference on E-Learning.

The minister said: 'E-learning seems to mean different things to different people but in reality, it covers a range of activities.

'E-learning offers both a tool for engaging learners and transforming learning experiences, and for increasing access to, opportunities for and participation in learning. With multimedia technologies, we can make learning materials more exciting and stimulating. Learning content can become real-time, current and relevant.

'The use of ICT enables students to learn at their own pace, at a time and in places which suit them. The learning process can be differentiated according to student needs and abilities. ICT can be used to provide access to specialist resources which a single school or college could not provide. It can also help people with special learning needs who might have difficulty accessing 'conventional' resources.

'Learning can also be interactive - whether through immediate feedback to students in learning packages or online communication between learners and teachers. It can also be collaborative, allowing people to share ideas and materials and work together online.

'Participation in e-learning can also encourage more people to move into more formal learning routes and provide a stimulus to learning providers to improve the quality of offline teaching and learning'.

The minister explained that ICT skills are now an essential part of most jobs. Future Skills Wales research showed that developing basic ICT skills was one of the top priorities for employers in the future. The Welsh assembly government and its partners are already taking action across a number of fronts to promote e-learning.

The minister said; 'It is absolutely essential that e-learning does not exacerbate inequalities in learning which arise from people's social and economic circumstances. We are therefore working to improve access to ICT for everyone in Wales.

'Through the Cymru Arlein strategy, we are working to ensure that every school, college, library and community-base learning centre in Wales is connected to a high speed broadband network within three years. We have already provided funding to deliver a broadband point of presence to every local authority and are well on target for getting these in place by the summer.

'We have already invested over£40m to improve ICT provision in schools since 1998-9. A further£10m is available next year,£8 million of which is being distributed to LEAs to support procurement, training and technical support. The£12m lottery-funded training package for school teachers and librarians complements this provision by providing training in the uses of ICT for subject teaching.

'As part of our broadband strategy, we are also working with LEAs to provide every school in Wales with interactive digital whiteboards - opening up new ways of using ICT in the classroom, both for whole-class teaching and group activities as well as the one-on-one use of computers by individual pupils.

'We have now established an advisory panel on ICT which includes representatives from schools, local authority and industry and which will be specifically tasked to review the optimum levels of equipment and connectivity need to raise standards and ensure equality of access in schools.

'We are also setting up an ICT task force to develop and implement strategic initiatives to improve connectivity and technical support - and to look at different approaches to funding ICT investment over the long-term. We recognise that this is no small challenge.

'From April 2002, NGfL Cymru will be set up to work with education practitioners and the software industry to develop new and better digital curriculum resources for schools in Wales.

'NGfL Cymru will provide a new education portal offering access to bilingual resources, meeting the needs of both English and Welsh-medium learners and tailored to the requirements of the national curriculum in Wales. We also want NGfL Cymru to exploit good work which is already being done at the local level and generate materials which are not yet being made more widely available electronically.

'I see this as a clear opportunity to develop and improve the delivery of the Curriculum Cymreig - the distinctive features of our curriculum in Wales - in all schools.

'The ICT for Learning strategy which was launched last year is supporting the establishment of ICT learning centres in over 400 venues across Wales. ICT learning centres will provide an important bridge between school and community-based learning, giving pupils access to better ICT facilities during and outside school hours whilst also providing a resource to support family and adult learning activities.

'Through ICT for learning, we are also looking at different ways of reducing inequalities in ICT provision for disadvantaged groups. Projects being funded include work with traveller communities, mobile learning centres and laptop loan schemes in remote rural areas and the establishment of e-learning foundations in some of the poorest communities in Wales. This strategy has also provided funding to help the national library and museums in Wales develop their ICT infrastructure and contribute digital content for learners.'

The minister added that there are many more initiatives to help E-Learning. Such as The Creative Wales Forum which is leading on the development of Cymru Culture Online, developing the use of ICT cultural services. Both initiatives will have a key role in promoting Welsh culture but will also provide enriching, home-grown digital materials for learners in Wales.

Public libraries have long provided an important learning resource for local communities and will have an important role in extending access to e-learning. Through the New Opportunities Fund, some£7m has been provided to link all public libraries to the internet - the People's Network - by the end of this year and to train library staff. Wales is currently the only UK country which is expected to provide public library Internet access free at the point of delivery in all local authority areas.

The University of Glamorgan's e-college and the Virtual College (Coleg Sir Gar) illustrate the way in which higher and further education institutions are testing and developing e-learning approaches in a real learning environment with real learners.

There are also many smaller projects taking place at a more local and community level to bring informal and basic education to those who are currently outside the learning environment. Many of these are receiving support from Objective One funds and ELWa funding for piloting innovative development.

The minister concluded by saying: 'We need to ensure that these initiatives are taken forward in a complementary and coherent way, to make sure that potential learners do not become lost in a maze of services, to achieve a critical mass of provision which optimises the potential of ICT for transforming learning.

'We are already looking at ways of achieving practical collaboration and joint marketing, for instance with the University for Industry (Ufi), Learndirect and the Digital College. This approach clearly needs to be adopted across a wider front.

'We need to support education planners to ensure that e-learning is embedded into education and training across the board, not seen as a separate activity.

'We need to find effective ways of measuring, accrediting and sustaining attainment from e-learning to make more attractive to learners and part of a natural progression into other learning opportunities. We need to raise the profile of e-learning in Wales, and of Welsh e-learning providers - both within the UK and internationally if we are to make Wales The E-Learning Country.'

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