Technology is both exciting and a potential cul-de-sac for education. John Davitt urges teachers to reclaim the initiative and spare us from stifling uniformity
If we are not careful, the National Grid for Learning may well become the Watneys of the 1990s. Instead of the ubiquitous Red Barrel beer, we'll have Windows computers. Instead of one generic pub for the whole UK, we'll get computer rooms so similar you could be in Axmister or Aberdeen. If this happens, it will be a tragedy. Vision is the key for teachers building new learning environments, but not somebody else's - their own.
The schools of the future must be shaped and built by the teachers who teach in them, not by local advisers or hardware suppliers subverting past good practice and shoehorning in the computer at all costs.
In short, we've had enough top down. It's time for some bottom up.
Let's look afresh from the chalkface. Let's learn from some teachers already building their schools of the future.
Three key enabling factors seem to emerge in schools taking their own successful steps forward:
* Computer networks that link to the wider community and Internet, and grow across the school. Networks that are easily maintained and repaired by a local mentor or a managed service.
* Ease of physical and cognitive access to software tools for students and staff.
* A continuing development of the overall learning environment into which the ICT resources are deployed.
"ICT is not a panacea," says Allen Andres, headteacher of Mereway Middle School in Northampton. "The boxes themselves don't help - it's the teacher mediating and motivating the students so that they become confident users of these new tools."
He is convinced that networking is the way forward. "Networking is the C in ICT. I want to build a school environment for collaborative learning - how can you share unless you can move information around easily?" He also believes that spending time on computers is essential if children are to be empowered and leave his school at 13 as confident users of ICT.
To this end, he has installed more than 230 PCs for his middle school of 540 students. Many of these are old 486 machines running Windows 95 at top speed. This is done by using the school's Citrix Winframe server that provides all applications to every user at lightning speed, regardless of the age of the machine they are using. With deadening simplicity, the server sends slices of screen display to users as they need it - all the workstation requires is a good graphics card.
Concern for the place of ICT as part of the whole learning environment is now a key issue for schools about to spend National Grid money. In Salford, Manchester, Margaret Ambrose notes that their aim is to build classrooms where PCs are integral to the learning process, but "not great clumsy things which are in the way half the time".
Abigail Newton, a designer turned teacher notes that "good lighting makes a huge difference to mental and physical tiredness".
At Heronsgate Middle School in Milton Keynes, networking and Internet access are also central. Students manage their own Internet site and, as a standard part of classroom practice, compose video clips using QuickTime software on Apple Macintosh computers.
David Puttnam has just visited to see the dawn of digital video as a learning resource. Again, networking is central - a microwave link to the Open University gives them Internet access at 30 times as fast as ISDN with no local calls to pay.
The school also manages a network of 70 Macintosh computers on an Ethernet network. Students are taught new skills in pairs using a cascade method by staff, and they then have the responsibility of passing them on. A data projector has just been bought so that media work can be shown to larger groups.
"Writing becomes essential once the audience and communication aspect comes through," says Neil Robinson, Heronsgate's ICT coordinator. A Chinese professor was stunned on a recent visit to see Year 6 students using the Internet purposefully and speedily without any assistance. "Every school needs a mentor and we are fortunate to have Dr Peter Whalley from the Open University." National Grid for Learning money is being used to buy iMacs and put them in colour-coded clusters throughout the school.
Iso focus on your aims The British Computer Society is also informing the debate with the publication last year of 2000 and Beyond: A School Odyssey. The booklet gives case studies, a clear focus on teaching and learning, and a response template where each school can clarify their own priorities.
Eileen Devonshire, assistant chief executive of the British Educational Suppliers Association and one of the team who produced the document, says that work on a new paper will soon be under way. She notes the need for further research into the benefits ICT brings to learning. "There is an insufficient evidence base at present - not so much a shortfall as a yawning gap. We are convinced but we need to provide an evidential academic base."
From Pearson Publishing comes further help for schools trying to clarify their own vision for the future. National Grid for Learning - A School Plan walks the fine line between technical briefing and each school's individual aspirations for the future.
It seems we need a kitchen garden rather than a pub chain mentality to take ICT forward to the schools of the future. Schools must be helped to develop the confidence to build their own visions and central government must support them, not the box shifters who are currently centre stage.
BECTA, the agency advising the Government on ICT in education, now has a clear opportunity to support schools such as these in the form of research bursaries, where teachers can bid for funding to look into the development of ICT and then feed back their results to the broader community via the Internet.
A small scheme for teachers is already run by the Teacher Training Agency (www.teach-tta.gov.ukreschindex.htm). Research is the missing link at present and it should be the engine for further development.
Remember that wherever ICT is involved, complete solutions are the stuff of nightmares - building the future is a more awkward process. Learning is a process and not a product, so send any salesman claiming to have all the answers away with last year's SATs to mark.
Live in your own vision, not somebody else's. Let's hear it for the classroom teacher and, more importantly, let's hear it from the classroom teacher.
British Computer Society 01793 417424 www.bcs.org.uk
2000 and Beyond: A School Odyssey. Price: pound;12.
Pearson Publishing 01223 350555 www.pearson.co.ukeducation
The National Grid for Learning: A School Plan, by Mike Lloyd and Andrew Puttock. Price: pound;30.
Heronsgate Middle School www.heronsgate.milton-keynes.sch.uk
Mereway Middle School 01604 702620 www.rmplc.co.ukeduwebsitesmerewaymmiddle.html
Apple UK www.uk.euro.apple.com
Digital Origin 01277 201729 www.digitalorigin.com John Davitt hosts a discussion group on new learning environments at: www.wordroot.co.ukdesign