Almost 20 years ago I visited a small rural secondary school in Norfolk. Long after school had finished for the day I found myself in an unpretentious schoolroom with a vast black Research Machines 380Z computer on a trolley in the corner. The room was full of excited young school students; the English teacher was enjoying their engagement as they directed their creative writing to developing complex and lengthy text adventures for each other to solve ("You are in the head's study, there are exits to the south and north, he looks displeasedI You are carrying a slide rule and a javelin"). As the clock reached half past six in the evening and the caretaker arrived to chase out the students and lock up, I ventured to ask whether it was all worth it.
The reply was immediate and unequivocal: "I've been teaching English for a quarter of a century" he enthused "and this is the first time I've had kids begging to stay late to look at each other's homework - just look at their faces!" Twenty years on, unsurprisingly, probably no schools in the UK are pursuing text adventures, not because it was a daft idea (it wasn't) but because advancing technology, carrying with it the rich imagination of teachers and students, has gone racing ahead from those far-off texty days. And all around the world in individual classrooms that rich vein of innovation and exploration continues right at the chalkface.
In Tany's Dell school, Harlow, a primary class is experimenting with wireless portable technology - excited by their new access to the Internet anywhere in the school, at any time; in Germany students at the Kurt Huber gymnasium are using multimedia to compare phenomena of literature, fine arts, architecture and politics from around 1900 with the the present day; in western Australia, Como Senior high school students have built a website around their creative stories of Australian heritage and culture while students in Connolly primary school have researched the key elements in movie narrative to build their own presentations for parents; St Louise's comprehensive college in the UK, working with Swedish, Italian and Irish pupils is building a multilingual collaborative jigsaw story; in Brennen elementary school, Columbia USA, a science class of deaf children is swapping weather observations with other schools; at Hickory Grove elementary school, in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, students are using regular email correspondence with senior citizens to compile a history of their area; in Soweto, bishop Desmond Tutu's old school, Musi High, is pouring hand-drawn, scanned artwork on to an Internet site they share with schools in Birmingham UK; in Catalan, Spain, children in Robert Graves school, Deia, are working with VRML (virtual reality Web techniques) to explore their ideas of the shape and function of future toysI The list from around the world of small, useful activities is considerable and in every case the teachers involved are reflecting on their practice and sharing their hypotheses, hunches and outcomes. In our first example, at Tany's Dell classroom, teacher Matt Ives notes in his reflections that even the lunch supervisors have been roped in as the wireless iBook laptops become a feature in the play area and nature garden at lunchtime. Why do these teachers with crowded curriculums and tight resources all bother? For the very same reasons given back in that Norfolk school 20 years ago:
"Motivation," Matt comments from Harlow, "has gone off the Richter scaleI" We need these countless pioneering teachers, their students and their reflections, because we've never seen this magnitude of change in education before. The conveyor belt of technological innovation moves at n unremitting pace: the last 20 years have seen that old Research Machines 380z shrink to a laptop with 2,000 times the memory; centrally controlled Prestel has given way to an anarchic Internet; Binatone tennis (bongI bongI) has been swept away by cinematic quality games consoles; pocket phones have jumped out of the science fiction pages and into our pockets; and four TV channels have exploded to hundreds. Twenty years ago, few children had a TV in the bedroom, now over 75 per cent do. Books have not changed this fast, nor has drama, the fundaments of mathematics, or even sport.
With much of the curriculum we have had the luxury of time to sift through substantial research projects, to weigh the evidence, to hone a national direction and issue solid clear advice. With ICT it may just all be happening too fast. What national advice could we possibly publish today about Wireless Application Protocol (WAP) mobile phones for example? Yet they are already appearing in brave and inquisitive classrooms. The few countries that have tried to put the lid on progress with a set of national "specifications" have simply stopped progress dead in its tracksI a different strategy is needed.
That strategy is to arm teachers with three essential things: first, they need the space, confidence and training to be action researchers, to reflect on the use of ICT in their classrooms and communities - what worked? How do they know it worked? Who else did it work for? Who evaluated the successes? What went wrong?
Second, they need much better development tools. In the Eighties authoring tools gave teachers enormous power to create their own software and to version each others' creations. In many respects the tools available to authors on the Internet are a step backwards. If we value the creativity of teachers we need to arm them with the tools to be creative, innovative and reflective teachers. Third, we need much better global forums for the interchange of good ideas and practice. Don't be fooled by the pool of great and imaginative projects around the world - there is a far, far bigger pool of inactivity or dismal activity (yes, there really are still rooms full of children typing up "best copy" from their already handwritten work). For teachers in that "dismal" pool the problem is simply that they do not know where to look for ideas, solutions and honest evaluations. The UK probably has more useful places to look than anywhere else, but solutions from around the world are much harder to find during the limited opportunity offered by one frantic coffee break.
Researchers, great tools, opportunities for sharing? Curiously enough all this parallels a debate within the development of computing itself. Linux is an operating system that has evolved through the creative efforts and raw hard work, of very many people. By openly sharing the development task between many developers, progress has been rapid and, more importantly, the operating system has evolved to be flexible enough, so that it delivers what people want. Each individual contribution is shared and contributes to the progress of the whole. The dialogue between developers and the clear guidelines in terms of direction keep progress moving fast in the right direction. It is almost certainly true that for our use of computers in the learning environment, an army of action researchers - the teachers in our many classrooms - can do a better job of judging what works and what doesn't than we can ever achieve centrally. But this is only the case if we arm those teachers to do the job that is needed and, above all else, trust them to get on with the job.
And we should probably also do what I did back in that classroom in Norfolk all those years ago: say "Thank you" from time to time to the ones brave enough to try.
Professor Stephen Heppell is director of Ultralab, a learning technology research centre.