The right stuff
Do you ever look at the calendar and wonder if we're already living in the future? For anyone growing up in the Sixties and Seventies, 2001 was the future, a time when life would be as high-tech as a science fiction movie.
Does it really feel like the future? This was meant to be the era of space odysseys, but we're still having trouble getting the railways to work. And we're still talking about technology as though it's something that will happen rather than something that's already here.
But if you look closer you mightl see that the future has already started, particularly in those schools putting such a creative spin on the uses of technology. When you consider how advanced these schemes are becoming, it can look much more like the futuristic version of 2001 than you might expect.
The DFEE is currently trying to promote this kind of innovation with a pound;10 million Classrooms of the Future pilot scheme, which is backing experimental uses of technology in a dozen local education authorities in England. For example, at Camborne School and Community College in Cornwall there is going to be a pound;362,000 space centre mission control which will allow pupils to study astronomy and to learn about space travel, in a partnership with the National Space and Science Centre in Leicester.
In Bournemouth there's going to be an "eco-centre hub", which will allow schools in Dorset to carry out virtual field-trips in the Scottish glens and the Galapagos Islands, using various types of online communication, such as web-cams and video-conferencing.
If these are ways of applying existing technology, a more conceptual leap is being made in a scheme between the Science Museum and Bedfordshire LEA, which is looking at ways of introducing technology into the physical fabric of the classroom.
As a starting point, education officer Steven Bird, describes a round table on show at the Science Museum which is a programmable, giant screen, allowing the people sitting around it to interact with images shown on the table top. This could mean that the table becomes a "teacher", conducting pupils through CD-Rom style interactive project work. It's not so much a computer on a table, as the table becoming the computer.
Not only must the furniture be intelligent, but in this version of the future, so must be the walls and ceilings. "Instead of walls which don't really earn their keep, other than keeping up the ceiling, we want to look at ways of making every surface an opportunity for learning," says Bird.
This could mean building screens into walls, or making the wall into a flat-screen display. "Every square metre of a school has a cost to the education budget - and we want to get maximum learning value. So rather than just having plaster walls, which you then have to cover up with pin-boards, they could made from different materials and textures."
An indication of how walls and ceilings can be used was put on show by BT at the Millennium Dome last year - in the shape of a room which "told" a story to groups of pre-school children, using wall and ceiling panels that carried giant video images.
As the story took the children down a jungle river, so all the walls - initially transparent - showed a jungle scene. And when the story moved on to a tropical sland, the walls filled with images of cartoon monkeys. It must be the ultimate in wrap-around cinema.
The whole surface of the walls was being made into a display screen - and the atmosphere of a room could be changed in a split second by a sudden change in lighting and the different images being shown.
The applications for this could be endless. Can you imagine if you could fill the walls and ceiling with the painting you're discussing in an art lesson, or make the classroom look like the historical period being studied?
And it's not always the most expensive or most complicated technology that will make the biggest impact. Nathan Dodd, education officer at Becta, points to the potential for something relatively simple like email to make a difference in schools.
As an example, he points to a recently-completed project in which pupils kept in email contact with a polar expedition. "It's no longer just learning about Scott of the Antarctic from a book, this is emailing real explorers and asking them how they are doing and getting a reply," Dodd says.
"Email has so many applications - for literacy, science, geography and modern languages," he says.
The next big steps forward for the classroom of the future are going to include greater access to broadband, high-capacity links to the Internet, and the use of wireless networks. But how this will be applied shouldn't be pre-judged, he warns: "Who would have predicted the way that text messaging has become such a popular way of communicating?" And Dodd says that in the classroom of the future, pupils could be using computer equipment that might be closer to an integrated mobile phone rather than a laptop. While laptops might be great for teachers, they might not be so appropriate for pupils - not to mention the roomfuls of technicians needed to support them.
Among the schools which he highlights as being at the forefront of new technology is Ashcombe School, a specialist modern languages college in Dorking in Surrey.
David Blow, senior deputy head at the school, says that an improvement in GCSE results, up from 63 per cent to 83 per cent pupils getting five GCSEs grade A to C in the past two years, can be attributed to how technology is being employed.
This includes a video-on-demand system which allows pupils to call up video clips on their PCs - perhaps a recording of the news in German - and to complete a number of tasks based on the material. And the opportunity for pupils to work independently and at their own pace can really make a difference, says Blow.
The school is about to install voice recognition software, which will allow modern language students to carry out question-and-answer sessions using their PCs.
And in terms of what will come next, Blow anticipates a growth in using online links, such as webcams and email, to allow schools and individual pupils to begin linking much more often with Web-pals in partner schools overseas.
Another school which is pushing at the boundaries is Holy Cross School in New Malden in Surrey, which has pioneered the use of video-conferencing. The director of studies, Lawrence Williams, says that the next big event, to be held at the University of Bristol in July, will see a group of students from Japan and students from his school working with Nasa scientists in the US on a science project.
Chatting with Nasa, watching the Galapagos Islands from your school desk, electronic wallpaper and talking French with a computer. Maybe things have changed more than we think.
Sean Coughlan is a freelance writer