23rd January 2009 at 00:00

Tom Conlon, who has died at the age of 54, was well known to readers of The TESS as a regular contributor of articles that, from his deep knowledge of information technology, expressed eloquent caution about its uncritical adoption. "Technology without philosophy," he wrote, "is blind. Unless it is harnessed to a clear vision of change, then the technology could take us into a future that we would never willingly have chosen for ourselves".

Having studied mathematics at Edinburgh University in the 1970s, Conlon taught that subject in Portobello and Linlithgow before obtaining a lectureship in computer education at Jordanhill College in 1981 and then, in 1983, at Moray House College, where he remained. This was a pioneering path: computers in education in 1981 were scarce and rudimentary. Conlon not only taught about computing and conducted research into its educational uses, he also developed expert systems through which computing could be used in schools to stimulate students' capacity to think; in this connection, he obtained a PhD in artificial intelligence and education in 1997.

So he was indisputably an expert both technically and pedagogically. His critique of educational technology thus carried an authority which no one else in Scotland has commanded in recent decades. He warned against two threats which technology might pose to a worthwhile education. One was "paternalism", the characteristic mode of change in Scottish education, he argued, in which rigid models were imposed by amateurish working parties, leading to uses of technology which were "inflexible", "authoritarian", "outmoded" and "dull". His most recent critique of that process was published only a couple of months ago, in his scathing analysis of Glow (TESS, November 14).

The other threat, Conlon believed, was excessive "libertarian individualism". Young people, he said, were encouraged by pervasive new technology "to think only of the self and the moment", the result being "profound intellectual, social and moral enfeeblement". That context of "cultural trivialisation", he said, would not be challenged by "educational software titles which promised great learning benefits from a collection of animated cartoons".

Yet he never lost his optimism, continuing to believe that the pedagogical power of artificial intelligence could be brought to bear on technology itself, ensuring that students could appreciate computing as "an intellectual adventure in which new science and technology become the basis for exploring new forms of communication, problem-solving and creativity". That they might also then acquire a scepticism of those in power would confirm his own enthusiasm for computing as potentially a worthwhile aid to democracy.

He is survived by his wife Jean, his mother Ella, his sister Margaret and brothers Andrew and Roger.

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