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Parties offer stake in future

Sean Coughlan and Gillian Macdonald report on a TESBFI conference on education and the moving image

The moving image has always been something of a moving target for education - at one moment hailed as an essential inspiration for teaching, the next relegated to the status of classroom luxury or even worse, condemned as a waste of time.

"Curriculum 2000 - Education and the Moving Image", a two-day conference staged in the National Film Theatre, London, last week by the British Film Institute and The TES, considered how the moving image, particularly in the form of multimedia technology, might take its place in the classrooms of the future.

As this century draws to a close, the relationship between education and the moving image remains ambiguous, both as a medium for teaching and as an academic discipline. Digital technology might promise new multimedia resources for schools, but who is going to pay for the equipment, training and extra staff to make it a reality? If current trends continue, many schools will have more A-level candidates for media studies than English literature, but is the subject ready to be fully accepted in the educational mainstream?

An area of public life that is already thoroughly fluent in the moving image is politics. And the first two speakers at the conference were quick to grasp the voter-friendly possibilities of promising to revitalise schools with new technologies.

Opposition leader Tony Blair, bristling with confidence, pointed to a future in which multimedia systems will allow for "personal curriculums" for each pupil, building a customised education upon the foundations of the national curriculum. How this should be best achieved, he announced, would be the responsibility of a committee of experts, drawn from education and business, who would present their research findings by the end of the summer.

Behind this vision of computer-laden classrooms was Tony Blair's belief that Britain's economic well-being would depend heavily on the use of new technology. Computer literacy, he suggested, would be vital to the job prospects of children now in school. If Britain wanted to become a high-skill rather than a low-wage economy, Mr Blair argued, there would have to be a serious commitment to developing a computer-aware workforce.

New Labour has already positioned itself as the party of new technology, announcing plans last year to connect schools to the information superhighway. Determined not to miss out on the glamour of multimedia in schools, the Conservative education junior minister, Robin Squire, talked up his own side's achievements and plans for the future. While the Opposition leader had accused the Government of failing to invest sufficiently in modern classroom computers, Robin Squire argued that the ageing computer stock simply reflected the early start given by his Government to the introduction of information technology in schools.

These early initiatives, he said, were now being followed up with his department's current commitment to getting schools connected to the superhighway. In words that might well have come from Mr Blair's own lips, the minister warned "this doesn't simply mean throwing money at projects" - instead he argued for a pragmatic and case-by-case study of how best to bring new technology to schools. "An imposed solution will not produce the greatest benefit," he cautioned.

While, if you listened to the rhetoric of both major parties, schools couldn't be sent down the superhighway fast enough, the conference's first panel discussion asked the pertinent question - "The Superhighway to Where?".

Leading the visionary wing of the debate was Bruce Bond, British Telecom's managing director of National Business Communications. Education was about to experience a revolution, he said, as the new possibilities of digital technology and fibre-optic cable combined to offer schools a great storehouse of information. Moving images, photographs and text would be accessed from the Internet or from yet to be developed on-line services, allowing each pupil a remarkable proliferation of information sources.

As well as challenging young minds, this library at the fingertips would challenge existing ways of teaching, he said, "destroying structures" that depended upon a class learning the same thing at the same time. Altogether, this meant that we stood "on the threshold of a different era".

Such a pioneering spirit was questioned by another contributor, Brian Winston, director of the Centre for Journalism at the University of Wales. Stripping away the hype, he highlighted "the gap between reality and promises", suggesting that if present or future governments were serious about buying hundreds of thousands of new computers for schools, they should remember to buy a corresponding number of plastic bags to keep off the rain from holes in the roof.

This leaking-roof tendency seemed to gather support from the conference, and questioners from the floor pressed for details of how expensive and teacher-intensive schemes, such as computer-driven individualised learning, could be considered without any promises on extra funding, when schools were starved of revenue for the bare necessities.

Fielding (or fending-off) such inquiries on behalf of the Labour party was Anne Campbell, MP for Cambridge and Internet enthusiast. While Brian Winston poured leaking rainwater on a digital future, Anne Campbell reminded the conference that much of what was considered futuristic was already here, if only people had the imagination and encouragement to use it.

In her own constituency, she said, 10 per cent of her post came through e-mail, and in local schools connections were being made to allow pupils to take advantage of the Internet. On the omnipresent question of cash, she suggested that it wasn't only a matter of finding additional public funds, but more one of making information technology a higher priority from the money already available.

If all of this seemed to have strayed a long way from the moving image, it reflected an underlying theme of the conference - that the multimedia technologies, such as CD-Rom and the Internet, blur the boundaries between what is on a computer and what you might expect to find on a television screen.

Phil Redmond, chairman of Mersey Television and begetter of Brookside, said that this convergence of the computer and the television would mean fierce competition between broadcasters and the makers of software, in entertainment and education, with both fighting for "time and eye-balls". Picking up the theme of the individualisation of media, suggested by both Blair and Bond, he pointed to a possible future in which Brookside would be its own channel, side-stepping the "gatekeeper" of a broadcaster.

In schools, if children had access to a multiplicity of multimedia sources, he said that this would fundamentally alter the relationship between the teacher and the taught - making the teacher "something between a bar-tender and guide, rather than a bouncer".

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