What will learning be like in the future? What part will information and communications technology play in the way we are educated? In a large hangar-like building in Manchester, children are experiencing one vision of the future. Some use an interactive television system, others explore the Internet on a computer, while another group is finding out what life could be like in a virtual classroom.
All this is taking place at Futurevision, part of the Granada Studios tour, one of the country's largest attractions. Since the tour opened in 1988, more than five million people have passed through its gates, including about 10,000 school parties. Last year, 20,000 students aged 14-plus went there on educational visits. This year, 30,000 are expected.
Eileen Allen, head of education at Granada Studios, says: "Futurevision was developed to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Granada but, rather than simply looking back, we thought it would be good to look forward as well. We're not saying this is what the future will be like, but rather this is how we see it at the moment. The idea is to give visitors an alternative view of the future."
Futurevision cost more than Pounds 2 million to develop and its sponsors include Philips, Microsoft, ICL, Sharp, Intel and Dorling Kindersley.
The interactive television system - Two-Way TV - superimposes text and graphics on a conventional television picture. For example, a quiz show could include on-screen multiple choice questions which are answered by pressing a button on a remote-control handset.
The attractions also include computers offering Internet access (the websites are stored on a CD-Rom to cut access time), a cyber cafe and Into the Web, a large dome which features a guide to the origins of the Internet. The virtual classroom looks at how people might be educated in the future, via distance learning systems and computer networks. There are also sections devoted to mobile working (including video conferencing), the electronic high street (booking a holiday via a video display) and the home of the future (with an amazing surround-sound system).
Eileen Allen says teacher reaction to Futurevision has been positive. "It's educational, but it's also fun for the students. And, for some teachers, it's a good way of getting hands-on experience of computers and the Internet."
Granada Studios has produced two work booklets for Futurevision (for key stages 2 and 3), but Eileen Allen emphasises: "We are not prescriptive. We give guidance, but teachers are free to develop their own resources." She believes it would be a shame if school parties didn't also see the rest of the tour. "There are lots of fun activities and many of these can be linked with ICT. For example, the backstage tour looks at how television programmes are put together and includes computer effects."
Visitors can also get to walk along the external set of Coronation Street. Last November, Granada Studios launched its Coronation Street and the National Curriculum booklet. Written by Cath Wallace of the Oldham Education Business Partnership, it is a cross-curricula resource for key stages 1, 2 and 3, and has been revised after extensive evaluation. The booklet is packed with educational activities covering materials, fitness, maths, English and ICT.
Granada Studios hopes to develop a CD-Rom (with help from Granada Learning) linked with educational activities. "We're not about dumbing-down education, " says Eileen Allen. "It's about making links with something kids enjoy. But you don't have to be a Coronation Street fan to get something from it."
A replica of the House of Commons - almost every television drama that includes a scene from the floor of the Commons is filmed here - forms part of the Granada Studios tour. This will be used to link in with an ambitious plan for a Citizen 2000 resource pack, due to be launched next February. The pack, also written by Oldham EBP, will be designed for key stages 2, 3 and 4, and will be linked with a debate at the replica House of Commons. "I'm really excited about this development because it's so important that we learn how our country is governed," says Eileen Allen.
Her message is that if you are looking for an experience that is both educational and entertaining, and can update your ICT awareness painlessly, Granada Studios Tour is well worth investigating.
Eileen Allen recommends that any school wishing to use FutureVision, or any other part of the tour, should visit beforehand. "It's an offer that is free to teachers, and they can bring along another person for free too. If two teachers are married and they have two children, they can all visit for free. All we ask is that teachers make an appointment first."
During the preliminary visit, teachers can explore the attractions and plan their school visit. "Ideally, there should be three parts to a visit: the preliminary tour by the teacher, the actual visit and the follow-up work back in the school classroom," says Eileen Allen.
Futurevision is open all year round. Entry at Pounds 5.99 per pupil includes free worksheets (Pounds 6.50 to take part in drama or TV production workshops). One free teacher place with every eight pupils. Granada Studios education department 0161-828 5243.