Big IT fight ends in honours even

13th October 2000 at 01:00
Chris Johnston sees two old hands, Todd Oppenheimer and Professor Stephen Heppell, slug it out over computers in class.

In one corner stood Todd Oppenheimer, the US journalist and writer so critical of technology's relentless march into education. In the other Britain's most passionate advocate of computers in the classroom, Professor Stephen Heppell.

In the end, their debate that opened the Fusion 2000 global learning summit in Glasgow last month revealed more common ground than many delegates had expected. Nevertheless, some fundamental differences remained.

Mr Oppenheimer said there was nothing wrong with technology in education but believed its proliferation in schools needed to slow down until more was known about its effects on the way pupils learn.

He went on to argue that technology was another step in the process of dumbing down the curriculum and the growing failure of teachers to challenge their pupils. It was "criminal" to sacrifice arts, music and sport programmes, field trips and building repairs, among other things, to pay for it, Mr Oppenheimer said.

Neither did the argument that students needed to know how to use computers for the world of work cut any ice: "That just makes my blood boil as it's absolute baloney."

Spending a semester teaching pupils a programme such as HyperStudio was, in his view, "a semester wasted" and Mr Oppenheimer said access to the Internet had to be controlled, as it was akin to an adult bookstore.

Professor Heppell began by saying he agreed with some of Mr Oppenheimer's points, but rejected the idea that children should not be able to use new technologies at school because other activities experienced funding problems. "Computers are a natural part of their lives and to deny the access to then would be wrong."

The important thing was doing creative and imaginative things with technology and being sufficiently ambitious when setting tasks for pupils. He added that Britain was competing in a global race and it was vital that students became "cyber athletes" rather than cyber couch potatoes.

Technology also was permitting some of the problems schools have always faced to be solved and Professor Heppell was adamant that any mistakes being made with technology in education, particularly in the US, must not be allowed to weaken the case for its necessity. "There are many right ways, as well as some wrong ways, but this should not be a reason to walk away from technology."

The importance of good training for teachers, to help them use technology in the classroom most effectively, was one theme that emerged in questions from delegates. Professor Heppell said it was difficult to see any model other than continuing professional development working, but noted that teachers needed to be seduced into it by clearly showing them how technology could improve teaching and learning.

Neither speaker directly addressed the debate's topic that by 2010, people will use technology rather than institutions to access learning, although about 80 per cent of delegates did not think schools would disappear when the question was put to them by the moderator, Newsnight's Kirsty Wark.

Mr Oppenheimer closed the session by warning that technology was a much stronger force than conventional resources such as books. He said it was encouraging a fundamental shift in priorities by telling children that what happened on a two-dimensional screen was more important than doing or seeing something themselves.

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