Hang Ups

4th August 1995 at 01:00
Welcome to Birmingham's International Convention Centre and the World Conference Computers in Education, 2025," said the chair brightly. "It's 30 years since 2,000 educationists from around the world last gathered here to speculate on the myriad ways in which information technology would revolutionise education. We might be fewer in number in 2025, but that doesn't mean to say that we are a jot less enthusiastic, does it!" She smiled hopefully at the assembled delegates. Both of them.

One was an ageing columnist still retained by the TES because no one had noticed he was still there. The other was a caretaker at the convention centre. Global warming had done peculiar things to the climate and, although it was late July, it was bleedin' parky outside.

The columnist should have been taking notes but his thoughts drifted back to the golden years at the turn of the century when computers still had a certain je ne sais quoi. He fondly recalled how in those days, if at a cocktail party he ever let slip that he wrote about IT, the other guests would gravitate towards him and quiz him eagerly about maths co-processors and postscript fonts. But it didn't last. Once every home had one, computers became decidedly declasse.

It was the same with the Internet: once everybody was using it, nobody who was anybody wanted to. Of course, it didn't take long for anarchic students on the West Coast to start experimenting with envelopes and stamps.

They discovered that there was a vast network of letterboxes which, if accessed correctly, enabled users around the globe to communicate. The columnist had written articles warning how the postal service could be ruthlessly exploited by pornographers, perverts, political extremists and the Readers Digest advertising department. But to no avail letter writing fired the collective imagination. People packed their modems away in that corner of the attic where their grandfathers had put their Rubik Cubes, and their great grandmothers their hulahoops.

On that uneasy threshold between wake and sleep, the columnist's arm the consequence of years of RSI jerked involuntarily, disturbing the caretaker from his attempts at a crafty 40 winks. Disgruntled, he was forced to listen to the chair as she rabbited on about the benefits of IT for the learner.

He remembered computers from his schooldays. Waste of bleedin time, that's what he thought. His had been the first generation of school children to have been educated almost exclusively via the new technology. He'd had his French lessons pumped in on the Internet direct from Paris. For science, he had donned a virtual reality glove and helmet to carry out experiments of breathtaking complexity ("when you've split one atom, you've split 'em all, if you ask me").

Multimedia had given him the opportunity to experience all the world's major works of art and definitive performances of mankind's greatest musical and dramatic achievements ("we used to mitch off and use the CD-Roms as Frisbees"). He insisted to anyone prepared to listen that computers had learned him nothing. In previous centuries those who failed at school routinely blamed their teachers for the shortcomings in their education. His generation had been the first to pick on new technology as the scapegoat, and to demand that that their children should be taught proper by proper teachers. Schools, naturally, were obliged to respond.

It took a decade or two before the last of the computers were slipped unceremoniously out of schools, and for the bandwagoners who had once espoused IT to argue the case just as enthusiastically for pencil, paper, talk and chalk. The chair had intended reiterating that quaintly old-fashioned idea that IT could "liberate the learner" the theme of the 1995 Conference. But it was hard to marshal her thoughts when both the delegates were snoring. So instead, she turned up her collar, and stepped out into the bleak midsummer snow.

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