Technology may have transformed our lives, but it's not immediately obvious that it has made us more public-spirited. True, it has allowed us to make connections with people that we would never have encountered before, but it's hard to banish the view that sitting at a computer screen is an essentially insular activity.
But the next generation doesn't have to grow up thinking the virtual world is the only one that matters, and schools are increasingly taking up the challenge of using technology to encourage pupils to become more socially responsible.
At St Mary's Catholic Primary School in Dukinfield, Cheshire, pupils have put technology to use to inform the rest of the school what they had learnt about recyling.
The children, on the school council and eco committee, paid a visit to the Museum of Science and Industry in Manchester and a recycling plant. "They wanted a way of recording what they had done and bringing it back into school," says Jan Robinson, the school's Senco, who co-ordinated the programme.
Using the Movie Maker program, the children put together a 10-minute film about recycling, interspersing footage from their trip with clips of waste dumps and recycling facilities that they had downloaded from a learning platform run by their local authority, Tameside Metropolitan Borough Council.
Particularly effective were clips of children sifting through giant rubbish dumps in India, just like in the Oscar-winning film Slumdog Millionaire. A soundtrack was added using Audacity software, which also enabled the pupils to add a voiceover.
The film was shown at a whole-school assembly and has been posted on the website. It was also burnt on to a DVD so pupils could take a copy home. "It's made the children more aware of the kind of things you can recycle," said Ms Robinson.
"Technology has got massive potential and when they use the ICT equipment it makes them more interested. It's particularly good for children who aren't confident writers and helps them become more socially aware."
In another spin on green issues, pupils at Writhlington School in Bath and North-east Somerset piloted software that allowed them to design an eco town and see if it would work.
The program, demonstrated at the Bett technology show earlier this year, gives pupils the chance to construct a virtual world. Unlike the computer game, SimCity, the obvious parallel, the simulation is all about using sustainable materials and energy-saving technologies.
"We wanted a simulation-style game, but with an emphasis on learning and making a positive contribution," says Steve Gibbons, a former teacher now working for software developer Lightbox. "It is raising awareness of how to live more sustainably."
While most pupils are aware of a few examples of sustainable technologies, such as wind farms, the game aims to introduce them to some of the less well known, such as reed-bed systems for filtering waste water or straw bale housing. Talking points that pop up in the simulation aim to encourage players to think about their own behaviour.
"We wanted users to reflect on their own lives and look at ways of making them more sustainable," says Mr Gibbons.
"Chances are most of them won't be living in a straw bale house, but it gets them thinking about types of insulation and reducing heating."
Eco Builder, which is designed to be cross-curricular, with links to geography, science and design and technology, has two levels: one is a straightforward building simulation, while a more advanced level is a problem-solving exercise where the pupils are challenged to apply what they have learnt when building their eco town.
Research into children's use of the internet, carried out at the London School of Economics in 2004, found that online communication did not particularly encourage online participation in civic or public life. However, Paul Springford, professional officer for Naace, the association for ICT in education, says that technology's ability to encourage social responsibility is underrated. "The traditional image is a teenage boy sitting in front of a screen playing games, but a lot of those games are actually hugely collaborative," he says. "You couldn't really describe it as an isolated or insular activity: there is very much a social dimension."
This social dimension is present in a new resource being developed by the London Grid for Learning (LGfL). Low Carbon London looks at the city's carbon emission targets, using interviews with climate change and emissions experts to inspire a debate among the class on the topic of whether Londoners are too selfish to make the changes required. The eight- lesson project is aimed at key stage 3 and is being piloted in Richmond schools this half-term, before going live in June.
"The technology allows us to deliver a range of different material - and how else would you get these experts in the classroom, pause-able and replayable and accessible in and out of the school?" says Bob Usher, curriculum consultant for LGfL.
At Green Park Primary in Maghull on Merseyside, a blog keeps pupils and parents up to date with the activities of the school's Green Team. As well as carrying news and photographs, the blog also carries polls on what the group should do next. The latest asks for views on how to raise money for water-efficient taps, with options including selling cakes and holding a green day in school.
"The children have a sense of achievement when they see something they have done on the internet," says Angela Newham, reception teacher and the school's green co-ordinator.
"You have to have an interest before - a blog does not make you eco- friendly - but it enhances the team because it shows that they have responsibility for something, and it means that the grandparents can also see what is going on, which gives the children a real buzz."
But there's more to this social dimension than green issues. Attleborough High School in Norfolk will soon be adding links from its virtual learning environment (VLE) to the area's community police officers and a Junior Crimestoppers site.
Harry French, a design and technology teacher and the school's e-learning manager, says they have been working with the local community support officers to design the new portal.
He says the idea came from pupils who wanted a safe environment to report possible crimes without being seen to have been in contact with the police. The site will also include information about the officers and crime prevention and safety advice. It will provide a way for the police to communicate with users of the school's VLE, which has about 900 to 1,000 people logging on daily, about particular issues or with awareness- raising messages.
"If there are any problems or anything pupils want to report, they can do it without being seen to be approaching the police," says Mr French. "It also means the community safety officers can build their profile, have their own blogs and talk about the kind of things they're working on."
Attleborough has also linked its VLE to its five feeder primaries and a special school, and is looking at the possibility of using it to create a youth forum for the town.
"This sort of use of technology could have a massive impact in encouraging pupils to be more aware of what's going on," says Mr French.