Hang ups

13th June 1997 at 01:00
This is the dawning of the Age of Aquarius. The Mystic Megs at Microsoft have spotted a phenomenon every bit as exciting as the most auspicious conjunction of the planets. As they explain in their glossy literature promoting the concept of a Connected Learning Community, "The advances in technology and the goals of education align so closely that we have an unprecedented opportunity to change the way we think and learn."

It was probably because I read 1984 at an impressionable age that I have the odd qualm or two about the prospect of technology changing the way I think. If my brain worked in a different way, I wouldn't be me and - put it down to lack of ambition if you like - I've grown quite attached to being me. I certainly prefer it to being someone who thinks like the men in suits at Microsoft.

Perhaps "the way we think" doesn't refer to the mental process itself, but to what we think about or to what we actually believe. In which case, their prediction is even more sinister.

While we probably all agree as to what the "goals of education" should be, I'm not sure they are always among the most pressing concerns that face teachers when they enter the school gates. These are more likely to include: finding enough buckets to put under the leaks before the next downpour; generating enough bits of paper to pacify the Ofsted inspectors; cajoling their classes into collecting enough supermarket vouchers to acquire at least one decent computer to supplement the school's dwindling stock of clapped-out antiques.

With the right hardware - and enough of it - children can be helped to learn in new ways, and to think, not differently, but for themselves. It isn't Microsoft's brochure - for all its purple prose - that persuades me of this, but the video that accompanies it. In it teachers, pupils and parents describe the impact that computers are already having on life at Highdown Secondary School in Reading, Berkshire.

As part of the Department for Education and Employment's Information Superhighways Initiative, they have been participating in a project inspired by the simple idea that education doesn't stop when the bell rings at the end of the school day. So, as part of an experiment, 33 pupils - and their parents - are able to access the school network from their home computers. As well as being able to consult the school's library of CD-Roms and other digitised resources, they can use the school server as a stepping stone to the Internet. What's more, 17 teachers are on-line at home so pupils and parents can e-mail them with queries or complaints whenever they like. Highdown has also extended its network to a local library, a museum, a church and two neighbouring secondary schools.

It is only a start, but it does reveal how much easier it now is for a school to make use of the multifarious resources available in the broader community. It's all very exciting, but despite the obvious success of the project it still leaves many crucial questions unanswered. For example, a visit to the Highdown site on the World Wide Web reveals just how much excellent work the staff have done. But will they be able to sustain this level of effort when the initial excitement of being involved in such an innovative scheme has worn off - and Microsoft isn't there to foot the bill?

There's no doubt that children can benefit by being able to access the school network from home. But what about those whose parents find it difficult enough to pay for a school uniform, let alone splash out on a flashy Pentium? You don't need to be Mystic Meg to predict what's going to happen to them. The Age of Aquarius will be exclusively for those who can afford it.



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