"The excellent art of printing ... whereby great increase of learning and knowledge, with innumerable commodities have ensued, and daily do ensue to the life of man ..."
John Foxe, 1572
"E-learning should touch the lives of every learner." Charles Clarke, 2003 Some technology enthusiasts consider we are on the threshold of the most important change in learning since the 15th century and the development of the printing press.
By the time you read this the national consultation on the Government's e-learning will be complete. It will evolve as a result of the contributions of organisations and individuals who have been either delighted or dismayed by the strategy.
In the Middle Ages very few people could read. Then along came the printing press, the pamphlet and the book. This gave rise to an increasingly literate population to a point where, today, the notion of literacy has become a basic entitlement enshrined in law. This democratisation of learning has been credited with the Industrial Revolution and parliamentary democracy.
The success of initiatives such as University for Industry's learndirect would suggest that the revolution has already begun. To date, nearly a million people have registered for courses, along with more than 70,000 small and medium businesses. Of the current 637 courses on offer, 75 per cent are delivered exclusively online.
ICT is changing how people learn. Organisations are developing materials that allow people to learn on the internet at a pace, time and place that suits them. Experience tells us that learners who may not have done well at school find learning interesting and rewarding. Clearly e-learning is improving the opportunities for learning. However, we still stand on the threshold.
New technology generally starts by mimicking the old. For example, the first movies were filmed stage plays. A considerable amount of e-learning still mimics traditional models. Course notes, lectures and worksheets have been transferred to the screen, but multimedia elements such as interactive diagrams, hyperlinked information, video and animation are gradually being added.
This link to the past is likely to be the reason why the recently announced "whiteboard" initiative will prove popular with teachers. The use of the whiteboard offers opportunities for innovation, but also sits comfortably with traditional "chalk and talk" models of the teacher. The real transformations will come when we put the learner in the driving seat.
A former BBC television film-maker recently told me he learned more about a subject by making a film about it than anyone could possibly learn from looking at the finished programme. The researching, planning, filming and editing was where the real learning took place. He now leads a company committed to creating software that puts the learner in the role of film-maker, rather than passive consumer.
New technology provides the learner with an extraordinary range of things they can do with information. In the past we have had a paradigm of transmission of knowledge and a key element was remembering. Today, in a post-industrial economy, the paradigm is knowledge creation and a key feature is making.
In the future we will need a system with less emphasis on one-size-fits-all conformity and greater emphasis on flexibility and enterprise.
In a knowledge-driven economy we need a growing number of students to become increasingly innovative and creative, to take charge of their own learning and to have the capacity not only to remember knowledge, but to do something with it - to create knowledge products.
Some of today's students are already engaged in these processes. They inhabit the digital world in a way that many of us brought up in pre-digital times find hard to appreciate. Award-winning albums are being made in bedrooms. The popularity of games such as SimCity testify to the appeal of interactive worlds. Digi-savvy students use, adapt and interact with information. Even something as straightforward as ripping CDs or downloading MP3s is about restructuring previously fixed delivery models.
Today's listeners reorganise their music into personalised play-lists. I've been told that there are numerous "fan-edited" versions of the film Star Wars available on the internet.
At the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority we are concerned about giving learners a fair deal. This means making sure that the curriculum and the assessments they enjoy are high quality and relevant to the demands of the 21st century. Promoting innovation while ensuring appropriate stability in the current system is sometimes a delicate task. However, by sponsoring innovative projects such as e-viva - an online portfolio which uses mobile phone technology to introduce oracy into the assessment process - we learn lessons that inform our modernisation agenda.
New opportunities provided by technology won't just mimic the past; they will transcend the past. We learn best by doing. Instead of thinking about the pupil simply as learner, we should start thinking about pupils as designers, film-makers, composers, researchers, authors and scientists.
The printing press brought about the democratisation of reading. New technology is allowing access to opportunities previously available only to the few and it can bring about the democratisation of creativity. We need to put the tools in the hands of the learners.