All wired up and ready to learn

Next month's Scottish Council for Educational Technology conference will examine the barriers to effective communication and how they can be overcome. Jacquetta Megarry previews a promising gathering.

The theme of the Scottish Council for Educational Technology's major conference and exhibition at the Edinburgh International Conference Centre on November 13-14 is "Lifelong Learning in a Wired World". Topically placed during the European Year of Lifelong Learning, it stresses overcoming barriers of learners' ages and status, distance and place of learning. And current interest in the World Wide Web makes the "Wired World" element a natural combination.

Compared with previous events in the same series, this one looks set to attract larger numbers, is targeted more at teachers and parents and emphasises global rather than local communications. It is also more international, with several speakers flying in from the United States.

With sponsorship from CableTel, Microsoft, Philips Media, Research Machines and Xemplar, the conference organisers, the Scottish Council for Educational Technology, and exhibition organisers, EMAP, are keen to attract large numbers through the doors. The exhibition is open on Wednesday (9am to 7pm) and Thursday (9am to 5pm). The events are being held in association with The TES Scotland.

Combined with the exhibition is a plethora of conference events: eight keynote addresses and seminars; 36 general workshops and seminars; eight events in a special needs strandstand?, 16 hour-long classroom activities specifically targeted at curriculum areas for teachers and an evening briefing for parents. And there is special provision to help people with only a couple of hours to spare to gain something worthwhile from conference sessions and exhibition viewing.

American academic David Dwyer's keynote speech is expected to focus on education in the year 2000, combining multimedia presentation with thoughtful speculation. Dr Dwyer is the guiding intellectual light behind Apple's Acot (Apple Classrooms of Tomorrow) programme. His dream is "to ignite the curiosity, creativity and compassion of children" and "to empower them with technology and the thrill of learning".

To cope with the future, Dwyer believes, children need new competencies in social awareness, expertise and collaboration as well as in technological savvy, information handling and problem-solving skills.

Dr Dwyer's views will be of particular interest in Scotland because St Andrew's High School in Kirkcaldy, Fife, is setting up its own Acot - the only one in the UK - with support from Firth local authority and SCET.

The US is already well on the way to technology as a mass medium, with its target of one computer per three students by the year 2000. (The 1996 figure is one per eight or nine students, with the ratio improving constantly, albeit including machines well past their sell-by date.) Once on target, each student could spend an hour or two each day using technology as a normal part of schooling.

While the Internet is a rich and complex resource, its downside is information overload and complexity for the teacher to manage. A class teacher can set a question to her students to research on the Internet, but when they come back with 500 plausible answers, she has to sift and analyse the information to discover which are actually correct. This requires a considerable shift in the nature of her lesson preparation and has implications for teacher education.

Another speaker to look out for is Jenna Beth Bogard, director of development at Sunburst Communications, New York. She is responsible for software development at one of the top American software houses for elementary grades. They moved their main focus from floppy disc to CD-Rom two years ago, although their catalogue still features not only Mac and PC versions but also Apple floppies (including the old 5.25-inch format).

Sunburst's approach is to involve teachers at all stages of the process, from concept to storyboard to testing to finished product. It also believes in a trusting attitude to software purchasers: every item is sold with a money-back guarantee. This was responsible for SCET (which supplies Sunburst with UK products for "Americanising") changing its own policy to a money-back guarantee. So far, returns have run at only around 6 per cent - but does anybody knows how much illicit copying goes on?

Sunburst will be launching various new software at the conference, including Web Workshop which is new also to the US market. It is a toolkit for children and teachers to create ready-made Web pages, complete with hot links, without having to learn a programming language such as HTML or Java. If this delivers what it promises, the number of WWW sites and pages will presumably breed faster than rabbits.

SCET's position in mounting such a conference reflects three main concerns in the use of technology for learning. Chief executive Nigel Paine says: "First, we are interested in computing across the curriculum, not just in one or two departments or topics. Second, technology can help teachers to make differential responses to pupils with different needs, interests and abilities. Third, in case anyone still harbours the old fear that computing can replace teachers, we need to stress that the computer is just a tool for teaching - potentially a powerful, fascinating and flexible tool, but never a panacea. "

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