British Network ensures gentle adoption of 'novelty'

In the past the timespan of important change was considerably longer than that of a single human life. . . . Today this timespan is considerably shorter than that of human life, and accordingly our training must prepare individuals to face a novelty of conditions.m - Alfred North Whitehead

Today's ''novelty'' is the computer. Great Britain is in the midst of putting a microcomputer in every primary and secondary school in the country.

England, Wales, and Northern Ireland are in the third year of a $:9 million ( own separate program.

The official aim of MEP, slated for four years and recently extended to six, is ''to prepare children for life in a society in which devices and systems based on microelectronics are commonplace and pervasive.''

To that end, 14 regional computer resource centers have been scattered throughout the country. The network was set up to provide advice, software, teacher training, and support.The centers could give plenty of help - to schools that could afford a computer.

Then in April 1981, MEP got an unexpected boost in the hardware department. The Department of Industry sweetened the program's pie by chipping in some $:14 million to match schools pound for pound on computer purchases.

Meanwhile, the British Broadcasting Corporation, with some help from MEP, produced two computer series on TV.In conjunction with the series that aired last autumn and this winter, the BBC developed supporting texts, courses, and its own computer, the Acorn ''BBC Microcomputer.''

With this kind of push from the government and television, schools have been chomping at the computer bit.

''Of the almost 6,000 secondary schools, practically all, with a few odd exceptions, have two to four computers now,'' says Geoffrey Hubbard, director of the Council for Educational Technology, which administers the MEP.

Some 27,000 primary schools are now in the process of getting their computers and teacher training. For every computer bought under the Department of Industry's half-price deal, two teachers are required to take a two-day basic training course. Teachers also receive a home-study package which includes a text, a guide to the BASIC computer language, and a package of more than 30 software programs.

Good initial teacher training is critical to the success of the educational computer movement in any country, educators say. If teachers are given machines with little or no training, the computers will be underutilized or perhaps left to gather dust. Further in-service training, beyond the initial foot-wetting package, has been an MEP need that is now getting attention, according to program director Richard Fothergill.

As for the strength of MEP to date, Mr. Fothergill says it lies in the ''breadth of coverage'' and ''the success we've had in coordinating the provincial with the federal at the same time.''

A gap remains, however, between planning and carrying out the program. Developing teacher interest in instruction beyond the required basic training is difficult. Drawing more than a few teachers from each school into the computer fold is harder still.

''The big hurdle is the teachers - their acceptance. There are those who say you can't beat chalk, talk, and a decent book,'' explains Robert Chantry-Price, director of the Manchester regional center.

Fothergill is nonetheless satisfied with the progress to date. ''Some 10 to 12 percent of the teachers supported the program in the last year and a half, he says. ''I'd like to see 30 to 35 percent support before we finish.''

Only as the curriculum changes, though, will teachers fully embrace computers in British classrooms, Fothergill predicts. He says schools will have to move from an ''industrial age curriculum,'' where factual memorization is valued, to an ''information age curriculum,'' where the concepts of gaining access to facts are emphasized.

''Ultimately, we need dissatisfaction with what we've got, and we haven't quite reached that level of dissatisfaction,'' he says.

Dissatisfaction may soon be growing at the collegiate level, however, which is as yet relatively untouched by the British effort at computer education.

There is currently ''no nationally led program in the universities,'' Fothergill says. Recent budget cuts by the Thatcher administration have left universities ''in a state of shock,'' explains Mr. Hubbard. But unless something is done soon, one MEP official says, ''a generation of schoolchildren trained in computer use will be on their front steps asking, 'Where are the computers?' ''

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