Freedom of self-expression

If you ask a student in your classroom why they are doing what they are doing at that moment, what are your chances of getting a sensible reply? Commonly the answer will be that the task they are working on was set by the teacher. If you ask them who will look at the work they do, the answer is probably that same teacher. If the work is really poor, then that teacher might have to show it to a parent.

And yet in the rest of their lives, young people of school age have more sense of autonomy than at any other time in history. Advances in human rights in the second half of the 20th century mean that in every walk of life we now recognise young people as having a right to a say how they live. Access to technology has added to their knowledge of the world, especially since the advent of television. Now ICT has given them the power to make a mark as they contribute to electronic dialogues and potentially get responses from every corner of the planet.

We know that households with children are more likely to have a computer and internet access than those without, and that is not only true in the UK and US. In Chile, for example, some 50 per cent of family homes have a computer, and about half of those have internet access. This is in a country where many people earn less than US $1,000 (pound;538) a month.

This throws up a series of questions around those without access to technology, but it also raises concerns about those without guidance on how they use it.

Some, and we don't know how many, are active users of hundreds, probably thousands, of websites where young people exhibit astonishing levels of productivity and creativity. The fan fiction phenomenon reveals a wave of output in the form of stories, images and animations that is truly inspiring. What these authors were doing before they had the web as a publishing platform we do not know, and to some extent we may just be seeing something that was always there. However, it seems very likely that being able to share your work with the world, and get feedback from hundreds of devoted fans, has spurred these budding JK Rowlings on.

In schools however, the ability to make choices and meaning in such exciting arenas are severely curtailed. We control access to technology, and place clear barriers around knowledge, privileging some themes and topics and excluding others. Opportunities for personal creativity are few and far between, moreover chances to offer an opinion or individual critique are also rare. This creates a problem for those who have an active and more creative life beyond school, who will feel cramped and disengaged with school. And it does nothing to compensate those who do not have access to such creative outlets, who are left further behind those who already have a head start in the world of knowledge creation.

So if you are wandering around the BETT 2006 technology show in Olympia, London, next week, looking at all the latest hardware and software that will dazzle you with its wizardry, it could be worth asking one important question. Does this technology give any room to the learner to show what they can do? Technology can offer the most powerful tools for self expression and personal knowledge building that we have ever known, not just to an elite but to a majority. Shouldn't one of the goals of school be to make them available to everyone, along with the understanding to use them?

Angela McFarlane is professor of education and director of learning technology at the Graduate School of Education at the University of Bristol

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