The Friday Interview: Jennie Martin, BT Retail

9 Jul 2004

For most of us, the spectre of making up excuses for not completing homework or suddenly having to sit an exam that you hadn’t studied for are thankfully experiences confined to nightmares. However, how many of you wonder how different (or better) your school lives could have been with broadband access and the rich medium of the internet? Jennie Martin, director of Home School Learning at BT Retail, is driving a strategy aimed at bridging the digital divide that exists between rich and poor schools as well as A+ students and their counterparts with special needs.

My experience of using computers at school was one of frustration and bemusement at times. Learning to use computers in primary school at one stage consisted of several of us crowded around a black Amstrad computer with a tape recorder attached to the side of it trying to play computer games after several attempts at loading up, or trying to type in a programme that would create some kind of green and black display.

While the rich cyber world of the internet and email were tantalizingly only a few years around the corner, the notion of ‘information at your fingertips’ was something from an Arthur C Clarke novel. For almost all of my secondary school career, computers were forlorn looking things that sat in the corner of a single classroom under a thick layer of dust.

We now live in a world where many homes have PCs and internet access and for a great number of schoolkids, having grown up with the PlayStation, Gameboy and mobile phones, computing is a second nature thing. The benefits of using computers from home to compile projects and boost interest and understanding of the world are obvious.

However, despite progressive attempts to roll out broadband to schools, the actual usage of computers in schools the world over is sadly still lacking and probably not far removed from my own experiences more than a decade ago. As well as this, the issue of the digital divide is another cause for concern. How can a student from a home that cannot afford to have a PC or the internet for that matter possibly keep up with a student from an affluent background? As well as this, the issue of how computers can ease the lot of students with special needs or learning difficulties will not be resolved until technological access for all is universal.

A former teacher herself, Martin came to BT Retail with insight into the impact that broadband will have on learning in schools. She is the driving force behind the BT Learning Centre, a portal that was launched in response to an overwhelming demand among online households for relevant, easy to find educational content for the web.

“Basically I’m an educationalist, involved in IT as technology studies, very much using ICT as a tool for learning. I came to BT three years ago looking at driving a full educational solution, not just using technology at school but also in the home. In Western Europe, we are moving towards an online e-learning society.”

However, she says, there are considerable obstacles. “From my experience of working with schools in the UK, we are still at the beginning in terms of getting schools IT literate. When we started off with the idea of getting schools online, everybody got excited. But technology can only be so good as long as the materials exist for students to learn from in an online world. We discovered a huge problem – where were the materials for the kids to carry on learning at home? We were basically building roads, but to get from A to B, nobody had thought of cars.”

Martin’s response to the problem, the BT Learning Centre, includes more than 100 subject-specific titles from some of the UK’s leading educational content providers including Granada Learning, with the online LETTs revision aids included, Channel 4, Actis, Netmedia Education, The Big Bus, Doki, Amazing Grades and Mindleaders. These titles enable children to not only research online effectively, through Living Library, but also to revise and support learning using fun interactive activities.

“We have been working in the UK to translate the school curriculum online. Broadband is only so good, but we need content as well. We focused on creating the BT Learning Centre in collaboration with some of the UK’s leading educational content providers. If you are a child at school in the UK, you can go home and carry on doing research. We are looking closely at how children use the internet and IT at home. If you set a child homework, if they have a computer they’ll go and use that.

“However there are problems with the online world and it needs to be seen through a student’s eyes in the right context. A student could do a search on a word and end up with 550,000 irrelevant sites, and then it becomes onerous. What we are saying is that content at schools is relevant to the pupil’s work and therefore it is better to create relevant portals to compliment and enhance a child’s project work.”

The objective of the site is to cover all of the learning needs of the family, from ‘cradle-to-grave’ and the first phase of adult learning titles were added in April 2004. These include titles such as ‘The European Computer Driving License’, Microsoft modules like Office 2000 and even ‘Planning for your Retirement’.

The BT Learning Centre also includes some free content, alongside links to other educational sites such as GridClub, NGfL, museums and others. Custom-built user interfaces, specific to different age groups, have been developed for the service to ensure that the relevant level of detail is included and the style and language is appropriate regardless of whether users are four or 40.

However, although she doesn’t say it immediately, Martin is keen to tackle the subject of the digital divide. “In terms of extended learning outside the classroom, access is key. There are different ways, authorities could give them laptops, or give them facilities in schools. It’s a shame that doors close at 4 o’clock. If students don’t have the facilities at home, they could open up computer rooms or classrooms to ensure that students working on projects have access. I don’t think that any one way will remove the digital divide. It is really the cost of equipping all of the children with laptops that is prohibitive. As well as leaving computer rooms open for after-school use, community halls and public libraries should be involved.”

As well as rich kids and poor students, there are also well funded schools and not-so-well funded schools. Schools themselves aren’t in the business of IT. So, if governments around the world are forking out billions to bring schools kicking and screaming into the information age, isn’t there a danger that some schools will fall behind or will fail to manage their IT investment properly?

“In that sense I think managed services certainly are the way to go. There is a huge problem with the haves and have-nots. Some schools have invested and have a structure to manage it. Other schools have invested and cant’ manage. There is also some danger of being too proscriptive in terms of technology.

“Technology needs to be relevant to particular schools, not one solution fits all. Managed service is the way to go. Broadband for all schools is also vital. They can access what is relevant to a particular school. In terms of broadband we are seeing what the best fit is and are working with a number of key partners. At the end of the day it is down to individual schools to see what their outcomes need to be.”

Martin cut her teeth in the educational world teaching kids in deprived areas of London and it was there that she realized technology was the key to bridging the gap and equalizing society. Already she is focusing on using technology to help students with dyslexia as well as students who have become disillusion with the world of formal education.

The facts already speak for themselves. In the UK 70pc of students with internet access at home are using a PC when completing their homework and more students are using their PC to help with homework than playing games.

“In the deprived areas where I worked, students were struggling with maths and were disillusioned. When they started on computing studies and began learning through multimedia activities, their confidence absolutely soared. It was no longer a case of sitting in a classroom with a teacher proscribing information (that’s where kids rebel or lose interest). Multimedia gave them a freer environment and an interest in learning.

“The internet is probably the most powerful educational tool out there, provided it is used properly. Too many people focus on the negatives without realising the huge potential,” she says, echoing the truism that too many focus on the negatives of a disillusioned student without giving them the scope to realise their own potential.

By John Kennedy