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A children's e-charter

As the TV programme used to say: "We have the technology" but, as Stephen Heppell points out, too often we don't utilise it to its best effect ... and it's high time we did.

The UK's pioneering Microelectronics Education Programme (MEP) has just passed the 20th anniversary of its inception. MEP was active from November 1980 to March 1986 and under its director, Richard Fothergill, was responsible for the development of high quality curriculum materials, software and in-service training for teachers. The Labour government had actually planned to start the scheme in 1979 but lost the election and the plans were put on ice until three years later.

Twenty years on, much of the anticipated impact of the vision from that pioneering project remains tantalisingly elusive, yet the children who started primary school as Fothergill took up his post are now in their mid-20s with a full school career and, perhaps, a university degree and the beginnings of a career behind them. The education system appears to have been remarkably patient as a score of years have tumbled past. Each year a scapegoat was found to explain the lack of progress - we needed more computers than one Spectrum for a class of children, better software, better staff development, meta data to organise our content, broader band connectivity etcI. so many excuses. Yet the years have rushed by and many children have missed out on the opportunity to enjoy the seductive, delightful, engaging learning environment that we know computers help to offer.

Looking back on the optimism of those Eighties visions it seems incredible that, in 2001, some pupils will still be stuck typing up best copy of their handwritten work on-screen, or using the computer as a testing machine - drilling rather than thrilling. They deserve better and in some, but not all, schools they are already getting it.

Perhaps it's time to stop the excuses and start from a model of entitlement for all children that serves as a litmus test for our school curriculum and organisation. This set of entitlements might be expressed as a Children's eCharter so that school children in the next 20 years might see clearly where the education system delivered, and where it prevaricated. What might such a Children's eCharter include? Obviously there is need for a national debate but here are nine top nominees for inclusion to start that debate:

* Children might expect to be offered progression and continuity for the information and communications technology (ICT) activities they have collected on their way through primary and secondary school. This should not be translated into a soul destroying attempt to reduce experiences to the least set of common capabilities - "I'm sure you do have your own website Alison, but not everyone in this room is as lucky so we will work at this cut-and-paste exercise until we are all starting from a level playing field."

* Children might expect that the new "cool" things they discover that they can do with computers would be allowed a place in the curriculum, but only when their teachers can show that "new" is "better". This simple entitlement carries some substantial hand baggage with it - teachers will need to be better valued as action researchers; the sterile search for "learning productivity" (faster or cheaper learning) will need to take second place to a search for creativity; and we will need to embrace the uncertainties that result.

* Children might expect that computers be used as a tool to extend their learning opportunities rather than as a machine to test learning achieved away from those computers - ie they are learning tools not testing machines. They might further expect examinations to allow them to harness and show their computer skills and techniques. After 20 years of word processing it probably isn't unreasonable to expect that they might be alowed to word process in the examination room. But there is far more to ICT than word processing in the 21st century and the exam boards need to wake up to this fact and stop penalising children for being ICT capable.

* Children might expect a broader definition of literacy that recognises the media-rich world they live in, and will work in. They might be supported, where resources allow, in their creative work with new media - sound, video, Web pages and more. With governments all around the world embracing creativity and the computer's contribution to it, this is also a key economic entitlement that our future national income will depend on.

* Children might expect that their personal choice of ICT would be respected. The history of education's relationship with new technologies is littered with imposition, confiscation or standardisation. Many teachers are of a generation that were banned from using a ballpoint pen - "It will ruin your handwriting." Today's students find their mobile phones or PDAs banned while the policy on personal laptops in school is usually muddled and rarely starts from an entitlement debate. Some universities expect students to abandon the familiar computer that got them through A-Levels, and buy something "more suitable" - how arrogant!

* Children might expect that work they do outside school would enjoy an audience inside school. The entitlement here is for children's work outside school to be valued, accredited even, and offered some progression. All teachers will tell the story of the child they taught that unexpectedly turned out to be an expert on something (badgers, bookies' odds, brass rubbing). The entitlement here is to reduce the "unexpectedly" bit, now that we have the technology.

* Children might expect software that is built on an understanding of learning rather than a model of business practice. Businesses need finished documents, learning needs to record processes. An office word processing or administration suite is not ideal for delivering learning outcomes. Members of the European Parliament authored and sponsored the development of some ground breaking software and gave it away to learners; that public investment in public goods is needed again.

* Children might expect that, now we have the means, their work from previous years might still be on tap somewhere. One great sadness for many children is losing the record they had of their "brilliant Viking Project" and not being able to show it to their new teachers. This is especially galling when the new teacher insists on doing the same work all over again which is neither the teacher's nor the students' fault. It is a communication problem.

* Finally, children might expect a rather less naive view of what equity means. Government rhetoric sees the information have-nots as those without computers, or maybe those without Internet access, but it is more complex than that. An Internet access (like ADSL) which "delivers" information to you, but offers little return bandwidth for you to "upload" a contribution, disenfranchises a student as effectively as refusing to hear their contributions in class. ICT is information and communication technology, and the entitlement to communicate, rather than just receive, is central to social equity and learning.

What is interesting about this list is that these are common-sense entitlements that teachers have been pointing out for some years. The big change now, however, is that an economic imperative is pushing them to the fore. Without these entitlements, children that graduate from our schools will find themselves in a low-wage, low-value economy, despite all our investment in ICT. They deserve better.

Professor Stephen Heppell is director of Ultralab, a learning research centre


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