Last word

7th January 2005 at 00:00
BETT is always a good opportunity to look forwards, but since this year I am leaving Ultralab after 20 years (but not retiring, I should add), it also offers a good opportunity to look back.

The first BETT show was, indeed, some 20 years ago. The event was smaller then, of course, but very exciting in a pioneering way. Having attended them all, it is clear that there have been some huge gains over the years, with remarkable advances in technology. As Estelle Morris reminded us all in 2002, none of this is "pie in the sky": it is real and it has happened.

Technology has changed learning significantly. Yet building a new curriculum, creating ambitious and challenging assessments, revisiting school organisation, transforming the architecture of our learning spaces and more, is more challenging than ever before as we start to see the real potential of what might be achieved. But have we missed some key opportunities? Has the steady progress of BETT paralleled the progress of new technologies, or has it slipped behind?

There have been dramatic gains, of course. And colossal reductions in price - 100-fold drops have not been uncommon. The cheapest postscript printer in 1985 cost pound;5,000 and now can be out-performed by a pound;50 one. In 1985 you could buy a BBC B computer for around pound;400. Today you can buy a computer 1,000 more powerful than the BBC B, and still from around pound;400. Compare this to car or house prices in the same period.

All this has made the task of embedding pervasive technology much easier.

We have also enjoyed vast leaps in functionality and power: from the old and unreliable 400K floppy disk to today's 100+ Gb hard drives, while processor speeds, screen resolution, colours, networking speeds and much more all show the same dramatic performance improvements. At the same time most teachers, like many other busy professionals, now rely on computers in their everyday life to order food from Tesco, to book last-minute holidays, to manage their bank accounts, to keep in touch with extended families. As a result, the task of getting teachers up to speed with the practicalities of ICT has become very much a case of pushing against open doors.

In the early days of BETT, the sheer task of cabling up student homes looked to be insurmountably expensive for universities and beyond even the dreams of schools, yet the internet gave us networking, not just of the school hinterland but of the planet, for free. Perhaps best of all, throughout this we have been blessed with the solid, occasionally visionary, leadership of politicians, who regularly use BETT as a platform for announcing changes and progress. But now is not a time to be complacent.

The danger of all this progress is that we get smug and over-confident. We take our eyes off the ball. Technology moves so fast; many technologies, like phones or TV, that might have been written off as having no new major contribution to make to learning, suddenly offer a whole new potential but we fail to embrace them. The real revolution in our students' use of ICT this millennium has been the growth of peer-to-peer technologies; mobile phones, blogs, RSS news feeds, "wikis" with their open editing (take a look at Wikipedia), and a host of other ways for people to contribute and exchange within communities. Their peer-to-peer world does not fit the world of a "delivery" curriculum, of managed services, and of centrally set standards. Looking around BETT, you can see who is still in that old world by the language on their stands: "delivery", "portal", "managed content".

This is not a philosophy that will adapt well to the symmetry of a peer-to-peer world. The language that marks out BETT's future survivors speaks of "tools", of creativity, of enabling rather than of providing, and of user-generated content.

But the future might not be about computers at all. With the proportion of the world's population who have used the internet still in single percentage figures, we may look elsewhere for our learning futures. As the power of the box-that-used-to-be-your-TV grows to offer tools as well as storage, and as your phone grows to become your MP3 player, video camera, browser, organiser, radio and mail client, a tough question to ask is whether the computer as we know it has a future at all in tomorrow's learning world.

As you walk around the show, contrast what your teenagers are doing with their phones with what is on offer and ask yourself: "Which parts of BETT are the future of learning, and which merely a shop window on the past?"

Three successes

1. From the earliest days of the Microelectronics Education Programme (MEP), the UK has unswervingly looked at the potential of ICT and invested.

That optimism and commitment has been repaid with real progress in global terms.

2. Of all the projects I've been involved with, stands out in its effort to re-connect young people to learning. Although it's complex to run and needs precision, it has shown the power of ICT to transform lives with dramatic inclusion gains.

3. Since the advent of the internet, it has been easy to overlook the impact of computers handling multiple media in the 1980s, but that multimedia revolution showed us just how creative children and teachers could be as authors, given the right tools.

Future concerns

1 Teachers and learners need powerful tools to author their own learning resources and activities. The availability of these tools has diminished over the past 20 years, although, as for example with digital video editing, when they are good the work that they enable is stunning. We need more tools and it is not clear where they will come from. Where is the HyperCard or Toolbook for your mobile phone?

2. In a peer-to-peer world of phones, and smart, contributory TVs, there is a real concern that the school computer will look anachronistic and children will look elsewhere for learning excitement. We need a clearer vision of what 2015 should look like, to help us make the right choices in 2005.

3. Not all the world is doing the same thing with ICT. Some pursue productivity, while others (including ourselves) seek creativity. We need to be clearer about who is in "our gang" and about how we can help each other.

Professor Stephen Heppell stood down as director of Ultralab, the learning technology research unit at Anglia Polytechnic University, at the end of 2004.

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