Teaching children good pet care will never be the same again. Now they can choose their very own virtual reality kitten from a basket of five living within the confines of the household PC, courtesy of a new CD-Rom. The computer feline is provided with artificial intelligence and distinctive personality. Guaranteed not to tear the curtains or get stuck up trees.
It will grow, stretch, roll, arch, preen or wander off. It may be stroked, petted or brushed. It will purr with pleasure or yowl in indignation. It must be fed but not too much, or it will grow fat. Nor too little, or it will become thin and miserable. For playtime, a finger flick provides mousehole, electronic cheese and remote-controlled rodent. This is fun learning for the very young.
At the other end of the learning scale, it is said that the Government's arch-fixer, Sir Ron Dearing - now embarking on the most panoramic look at higher education since Robbins - has particular interests in the applications of information technology to teaching and learning, and in the lifelong learning theme. For adults, whether it's physics or Farsi, technology may make fun learning too. It will enrich resources and lower the cost of course fees. It will reduce the need for teaching mediation and reliance on physical structures like buildings. The first chemistry course is already on the Internet.
Distance options and increased software availability, teleconferencing and interactive learning will facilitate adult access. Computer-assisted learning is already blurring the boundaries between full-time and part-time study. Such distinctions lose sharpness in the face of demand-led approaches to learning: flexible skills and basic education in and out of the workplace, individual learning packages and new delivery modes.
In the meantime, however, there is a pressing need for Sir Ron to focus on bias and inequity within the current system, disadvantaging the older non-traditional student. Financial arrangements for mature, access and part-time learners should be on a similar footing to traditional funding arrangements for the young. Education should be as accessible and no more barrier prone. Opportunity should be independent of local caprice and geographical vagary.
Reformed loan finance arrangements (long-term loans repayable through income tax over a working lifetime) need to be equally available to the youthful full-timer, the housewife returning to study and the labour market, the unemployed in receipt of benefit, the employed wishing to reskill or retrain. Why should those aiming for the modular route in their 40s be more disadvantaged than the first-time-round brigade?
Opportunity for all and lifetime learning have to mean the possibility for anyone to clamber aboard at any life stage. This means equality of access to loans funds, tuition and examination fees, whatever these arrangements may be post-Dearing. Learners need loan help for different purposes at different life points: maintenance costs at university, family costs for the low waged, childcare costs for the learning parent.
The UK benefit system is a Hydra-headed creature. Many of its tentacles are malevolently disposed towards the would-be adult student. Its perspective demonstrates, dare I say, a less than symbiotic relationship with the lifelong learning ethos. Indeed, the intricacies of income support, family credit and the 21-hour earnings rule create a thicket which would have deterred even the Sleeping Beauty's prince. A fair system of funding the expansion of learning will need to look attitudinal reform towards social security squarely in the eye. Let us hope that Sir Ron has a sharp sword and more than a bit of vision.