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Brave new seers and wise old sages

David Halliday offers a personal perspective on last week's events

There were times, as I sat in the huge auditorium at the Scottish Exhibition and Conference Centre in Glasgow during the SETT 2004 conference, when I thought I had gone to the wrong venue and mistakenly ended up at a religious convention.

I listened, agog, as David Warlick (Landmark - United States) and later Peter Cochrane (ConceptLabs) painted a vision of that beckoning, bright technological future. The hubristic title of one of Warlick's talks, "Riding the Edge of the Wave", was most revealing. I was truly stunned by their faith in the ability of technology to create ineluctably an educational heaven on earth.

Warlick seemed to assume that, as fellow disciples, we would approve of his homely anecdotes depicting his son and daughter immersed in technology. He confidently reassured us - based on the rigorous evidence that his own children had not become social troglodytes - that misgivings about the adverse technological impact on interpersonal skills were ill-founded and fatuous.

Peter Cochrane was almost euphoric as he described to his audience how, after glancing through a dissertation on multimedia from a student at a prestigious university, he had instantly branded it a fail and returned it on the grounds that it contained no pictures. For him the ineptitude of using the monochrome medium of old-fashioned words to argue a case was so self-evidently an absurdity that his self-righteous indignation was totally justified.

Not satisfied with exhibiting only one characteristic of the divine retribution, Professor Cochrane proceeded to outline how his "ambition (by using technology) was to become omnipotent and omniscient". By this point, even I was beginning to assume that his tongue was, hopefully, firmly in his cheek?

Thankfully, the above was only part of my experience at the conference. In total contrast I was immensely impressed by the realism, wisdom and humility of Paul Black, professor of science education at King's College, London, and Tim Brighouse, commissioner for London schools. Unlike the brave new world conjured up by the earlier two prophets, both these men talked about a world, warts and all, which I could relate to.

Professor Black talked in some detail about how formative assessment could enhance the learning experience and, unlike David Warlick's anecdotal evidence, supported his case with an outline of the substantial trials undertaken.

Astonishingly, Professor Black, granted now elderly, seemed to believe that significant progress could be made by improving the quality of the verbal and written interactions between teachers and pupils - and all without a mention of computers!

Tim Brighouse was equally challenging and inspiring as he rattled through a whole catalogue of practical ways to improve education. Also in the twilight of his career, Professor Brighouse neglected to prostrate himself before the technological saviour and instead, quite heretically, implied that technology was no more than one of many tools in a plethora at the disposal of those in education.

On reflection, one of the main differences between the two groups of speakers was that for the prophets - Warlick and Cochrane - technology has become god. They have become so mesmerised by the gadgets and by the speed of change that they have failed to appreciate, or at least convey, that this is mere floss.

Black and Brighouse, in contrast, have been able to look beyond the shadows on the cave, and perceive that technology can never do more than assist education; it is no panacea.

If we are ever asinine enough to embrace the vision of the prophets and allow technology to become the substance and centripetal focus of our educational system, our children will pay a terrible price.

David Halliday teaches history and business education at Eyemouth High in Scottish Borders.

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