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The second great crossing is coming;Opinion

HAVE YOU ever wondered why we have classrooms in schools of the size and shape that they mostly are? The answer is because the number of students with average eyesight and hearing, able to read a blackboard and hear a teacher clearly, is approximately 35. In secondary schools the bell goes every 50 or so minutes and pupils traipse from one quasi-sheep pen to the next. The teachers remain within the walls of their private territory. And so it has been ever since schools were re-awakened in the mid-19th century as Britain clamoured to educate the young of its ever-increasing population.

One hundred and fifty years later we are struggling with - almost gasping at - the speed of technological change that surrounds us. ICT, or information and communication technology, in the form of networks, Internets, national grids for learning, digital communication systems - soon to incorporate telephones, televisions and interactive computers in one machine in most homes - ICT is everywhere.

It has no barriers of time nor of space, rooms, buildings, cities, nations, the globe, or indeed of the very universe. American writer Robert Reich tells us that we are at "the second great crossing". The first was near the end of the 18th century and throughout the 19th century, when we moved from the land to the factories. This second is the move from factories, mines and mills to the world of ICT that already underpins almost every aspect of our daily living and working experience.

For this "second great crossing", we all need to be equipped with new levels of learning and training, if we are to survive economically and maintain our high standards of living. Teachers have scarcely begun to imagine, explore or comprehend the degree of change and difference that ICT will bring to formal learning. It will change the size, style and location of what we know as classrooms. ICT will relegate teachers' class registers and mark books to history and cause teachers to be facilitators and managers of students' learning, not its fount and source.

ICT will be used to focus teachers' work away from communicating knowledge to diagnosing learning difficulties, planning learning programmes, assessing and helping to motivate students and to monitor progress.

Students will have learning programmes via ICT at home. The "school" buildings will resemble large modern community libraries or learning centres, with rooms for small groups of students to work with specialist teachers and large plenary spaces for major demonstrations or learning experiences. Professional teachers and their teams of learning support assistants will manage students' learning, paced at individual levels of need.

Students will use e-mail to communicate with their teacher or tutor to check their learning or some aspect of an assignment. Gone will be the traditional parents' evenings - although parents will still meet with teachers to reflect on what they have already accessed from the teachers' electronic register. This will hold an attainment profile for every student, with assessment grades both for assignments independently undertaken and from regular testing.

Teachers will work a flexible week and year, with a quite different style of contract. ICT will, before long, revolutionise the world of teachers' working lives. They will inevitably be exposed to levels of accountability never before dreamt of. Classrooms will not be bound by the students' need to see a blackboard or hear a teacher. Adolescents and adults will learn together and all will increasingly become autonomous learners. ICT will eliminate high levels of student dependency and will engage teachers in a new exploration and understanding of their authority, and will make them stronger and more confident professionals, respected by all.

Anita Higham is principal of Banbury School, Oxfordshire

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