The technical revolution promised by Tony Blair will end in disaster unless there is a national debate about what children are taught, the Government was warned this week.
Britain needs to start a debate about what the National Grid for Learning is for, according to mathematician Richard Noss of the Institute of Education. A "new knowledge for the new millennium" is required.
Professor Noss also warned that the liberating potential of technology would not be realised unless people were taught how the machines they were using worked - the mathematical principles.
Professor Noss was delivering his inaugural lecture as professor of mathematics education on the same day Mr Blair met Microsoft chairman Bill Gates and launched the National Grid for Learning.
The lecture did not refer directly to the grid, but Professor Noss said afterwards his message had great relevance to the day's developments. "There is a national debate taking place about education, but it is centred entirely on pedagogy," he said.
"By itself that is not going to solve anything. We need to open it out to what knowledge children will need in the 21st century.
"The national grid is a great opportunity to do exactly that. Blair and Blunkett have done the right thing but it could all be a disaster. If we use all this just to deliver the same old knowledge, where is the gain?" The growth of technology in the workplace and the home has supposedly freed people from simpler tasks , said Professor Noss. But users of information technology would be constantly prey to glitches and errors if they failed to understand what the machines they were using were doing, he said.
"Banks are beginning to realise their systems are vulnerable to errors made by unskilled counterstaff who don't understand what is being done to their input and can't make sense of the output."
And if the real benefit of technology was increased flexibility, then users would need to understand their machines. Increasingly, as technology took over more aspects of people's lives, it would require understanding of the mathematical ideas that underpin it, he said.
Professor Noss also criticised the growth of integrated learning systems - computer programs which allow children to work one-to-one with a computer to improve their literacy and numeracy.
They might be a useful tool for improving basic numeracy, he said, but failed to teach students the bigger picture - how the mathematical principles they were learning fitted together.
Grid launched, page 12
Computers update, pull-out