The burning issue

23rd June 2006 at 01:00
Fahrenheit 451 - the combustion point of paper - provided sci-fi writer Ray Bradbury with an apt title for a short story in which a totalitarian regime orders that every book should be burnt. Dissidents, in an heroic bid to preserve what they can of their cultural heritage, choose one volume each to learn by heart. As long as they can stay alive, so will the books lovingly stashed away in their synapses.

Brenda Despontin, president of the Girls' Schools Association, has told readers of The Times that perhaps they should be getting ready to follow suit. Claim your title quickly or you'll find yourself at the end of the queue having to toss up between Jade Goody's My Autobiography and Gordon Brown's Speeches 1997-2006.

Why is Dr Despontin so worried? Gordon, Dave and Sir Ming may have their shortcomings but, let's be fair, none of them is likely to decree that her local branch of Waterstone's should be razed to the ground. No, she thinks that the real threat to our book-based culture comes from the very people who should be championing it - the movers 'n' shakers of the educational establishment. Dr Despontin is horrified by the uncritical way in which they seem to accept that the future for schools must be digital; that books are passe; that the computer will soon make teachers surplus to requirements.

"Where is there the serious debate on the desirability of so much technology?" she asks. "Like Bradbury's book lovers, we are almost afraid to raise a word of opposition."

It's easy to see why. I know a young history teacher who believes computers should be as welcome in the classroom as an outbreak of nits. He reckons he's got so many more interesting things to do with his lesson time, he doesn't want children to waste it gawping at monitors. Down the pub, he can argue his case with passion - but he never does so to his head of department or the school managers because he's sure that would put the kybosh on his hopes of promotion.

If, like him, you think the ICT zealots are taking your school on a wild - and wildly expensive - goose chase but are shy about saying so in the staffroom, you can always pop in to the TES virtual staffroom where, under the cloak of anonymity, you can speak your mind. Go to, find the Opinion forum and look for the topic thread, which I'll start today, with the title, "The king is in the all together, the all together, the all together." If you're so infuriatingly young that you don't understand the reference, google "kaye danny emperor new clothes".

And if you need confirmation that there's at least one big gun on your side, read Dr Despontin's article, which you can find at Not that I agree with it. Over the years I've tilted at the same windmills as she does and barked up equally wrong trees, but I've slowly come to realise that the e-vangelists who are preaching the doctrine of more ICT in education aren't nearly as scary as they can at first seem. I've talked to lots of them (although actually it's they who invariably do most of the talking); I've read their articles; visited their websites; in dimmed lecture theatres, I've sat through their breathless PowerPoint presentations. And every one of them eventually gets round to saying that the real business of teaching is best left to teachers. ICT, they agree, is only a tool - albeit a very powerful one - that teachers will use in the way that best suits them.

Of course, it's easy to see why the "Sir Humphreys" at the Department for Education and Skills are so gungho about new technology. Computers do not demand pay rises, don't moan about the national curriculum, never take days off to watch the World Cup, nor have any yet been heard to heckle cabinet ministers at a union conference . The only trouble is that, when it comes to teaching, they're simply not up to the job.

Universities, for example, have experimented longer with CAL (computer-aided learning) and distance learning than schools. Students quite like using them, but every survey reveals they are adamant that they also want to spend real time with real lecturers. The research shows that the less contact time they have, the more likely they are to drop out. The teacher, it seems, is as indispensable to a successful CAL course as a mouse, or a tube of Deep Heat to relieve the first symptoms of repetitive strain injury.

Indeed, the e-vangelists don't think of the computer as a surrogate teacher. Rather they see it as a means by which pupils and teacher can collaborate in the learning process - and by so doing become part of a global community of learners and sharers. This is the brave new world of wikis, blogs, folksonomies, podcasting and the other wonders of what is dubbed "Web 2.0". If you can't see the educational benefit, take a look at a recently published booklet, Coming of Age, which explains it all. It keeps the jargon to a minimum, is teacher-orientated, packed with useful URLs and - very much in the spirit of Web 2.0 - is free. It can be downloaded as a pdf file from, a source of all sorts of useful information about ICT and learning run by the ubiquitous Terry Freedman.

Read it, and if at the end you still want to rid your classroom of new technology, you could always use Google to find the combustion point of the computer.

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