Desperate race to keep up with the children

Peter Cochrane

The technological revolution will create two new breeds of teacher: the computer-literate and the retired, says Peter Cochrane. Imagine a school without books, pens, pencils or paper. The children can read and write, but the teachers cannot. This serves as a metaphor for our information age.

While children are embracing information technology and rapidly gaining skills, the teaching profession remains resistant to, or unable to see the need for, change. True, most of our schools have computers, but on average they are over five years old and under-used. Many children now live in homes awash with TV, video, hi-fi, games machines and PCs. A smaller number have access to libraries of CDs and the Internet.

Their first encounter with a computer may now be before one year old, and by five they have absolutely no techno-fear. They have an expectation and need for more as they are enticed by this instant-gratification technology, and a growing incredulity at an education process that has changed little since the ancient Greeks.

To quote one 15-year-old involved in British Telecom's education programme: "This is hopeless - my teacher will not accept my homework on a floppy. " Quite rightly, this pupil balked at the retrograde attitude of his elders. Homework, searching for information, report preparation, mathematics and analysis is increasingly created on the screen by such pupils. The problem is often the teacher rather than the school.

Technophobia is a natural reaction to the pace of change we now have to live with, but there is a cure get immersed and use the technology to advantage. Specifically, how is a teacher to afford such an expensive personal facility?

Getting on a machine, by yourself, and avoiding that critical eye when making mistakes has a lot going for it. An understanding friend who has recently survived the same learning curve can also be of great benefit. Reading the handbook and going through the tutorial is not! Learning IT skills is more about playing than formal learning. Watch young children on PCs; they never look at the handbook, they have no inhibitions about making mistakes and looking foolish in front of their peers. They just fly, crash and burn, and start again.

If as a nation we are serious about getting IT into our schools and to our population, we need to be innovative in solving the funding and access problems. Keeping equipment and software up to date is an expensive exercise for individuals and institutions.

Perhaps teachers should have the benefit of interest-free loans, or tax-free packages to get the technology into their homes for private learning. Schools could open their doors in the evening and run commercial IT classes for the general public to create extra money.

Within five years we are likely to see such integrated systems becoming common, while the power of lap-tops and hand-helds will increase and their cost will fall. Of course we should worry about the underprivileged who will not be able to fend for themselves in such a world. However, observing the domestic spending habits of the majority of the population, with weekly video rentals, software, games and hi-fi purchases, it is easy to see where a significant annual IT spend might be found. Perhaps with some safety net, some tax advantage or grant system for education, no new money would be required.

Assuming financial solutions can be found, what might the impact on teaching and employment be? Looking at other countries, and some of our own universities, we already see degree courses you can attend, but you will fail without your own PC. Some industries already reject job applicants with no IT skills as it is as debilitating as not being able to read and write.

For millennia the teacher has been a "sage on the stage". IT will change the relationship with the pupils to become more of a "guide at the side". Those who think that teaching IT involves pupils seated in neat rows with a computer terminal each, are in for a shock. Better you just load the software, seat the pupil, and walk away. Return in a couple of days and most will be reasonably capable, and a class network will have evolved with the rapid sharing of newly-discovered techniques.

Some studies claim that children working with IT learn 50 per cent faster and retain 80 per cent more than conventional methods. Given the choice of a paper or multi-media CD-based encyclopedia, children go for the CD every time. It is interactive, pictographic, and fun. On the down side, it is also very often shallow and wholly American-based. So children quickly learn about American history, spelling and culture, to the detriment of their European heritage. Get them on networks and they hunt down the information they need with surprising ease. Increasingly, the on-line library, the CD collection, and top-end computer at home will entice them in this direction.

IT will dramatically change the balance of education, though the social aspects of the class, group activity and interaction will still be needed. In industry we now see organisations being "virtualised" people work from home, hotel, car, train and plane, but they still go to the office for human interaction. Perhaps education will follow for some pupils it already has.

IT is not an "instead of" but an "as well as" technology. It is unlikely to replace the teacher or the school, but it will change their nature. In future, education will have to be more available, and on-line as it becomes a continuous life-long process.

We are probably looking at changes greater than those introduced by the migration from the quill pen, to the printing press and the felt tip.

One change will create another, and a new breed of teacher will emerge, IT-literate, or retired.

* Professor Peter Cochraneis head of research at the BT Laboratories in Martlesham Heath, Ipswich.

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