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Digital generation gap;BERA conference

As the annual conference of the British Educational Research Association gets under way, Karen Thornton looks at papers that are being presented on computer literacy, training for deputy heads, formative assessment and advanced-skills teachers

USING computers to draw disaffected children back into education could backfire because of an inter-generational culture clash in virtual reality, say researchers.

Young people may resent the intrusion of the adult, educational world into their games-orientated computer environment. And they will continue to see educational software as second-best unless and until it can match the excitemtent of commercial games software.

Ministers want children to have the computer skills that will equip them for a society in which information - rather than goods and capital - will be the key to economic growth and prosperity. They are investing millions of pounds in the National Grid for Learning, and schools are expected to spend 15 per cent of grid grants on educational software.

In July, Lord Puttnam, the film-maker and education adviser, called on games designers to turn their talents to educational programming. Computers, because they have more status in youth culture than books, are also seen as a way of bringing disaffected young people back into the classroom.

But, in draft papers presented today at the British Educational Research Association's annual conference, researchers from Bristol University and University of Wales Newport say policy-makers have misjudged young people's reasons for using computers, particularly at home.

Many children are already sophisticated consumers of information technology and are motivated by the pleasures of mastering games, e-mailing friends and working on computers.

"Until 'educational' games software can match the commercial market in terms of excitement and graphics, young people will see these activities as second best," says Keri Facer, one of the Bristol researchers involved in the Screen Play project.

The two-year study of young people's computer use at home uncovered individuals who consider learning basic IT skills a waste of time because all computers will be voice-operated in the future, or because computing may be of little relevance to the careers they are considering - for example, farming or modelling.

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