"Scotland has to be digital... We must get ourselves level with the rest of the world"

10th March 2000 at 00:00
The days of the blackboard are numbered, says Scottish MP Peter Peacock. Chris Johnston asks him about his plans for a virtual classroom revolution.

Peter Peacock, the deputy minister for children and education, sits behind first minister Donald Dewar in the Scottish Parliament. The price of sharing the closed circuit television limelight is not being able to sneak out of the chamber when the cameras are on Dewar.

However, a break in proceedings allowed Peacock to escape one Wednesday afternoon last month to his more usual HQ: a former Edinburgh City Council office building further down the Royal Mile.

Peacock, responsible for pre-school and school education, children and young people, is a true believer in the value of technology in education. Some of his enthusiasm stems from using computers in the management consultancy business he set up after starting his career in the Highlands and Islands as a field officer for the National Association of Citizens' Advice Bureaux. "I became much more aware of the power of technology as a means of communication and speeding up business," he recalls.

When Peacock became an MSP and minister last year - after being a member of the Highland Council since 1982 - information and communications technology had evolved hugely since the days when transmitting data was so slow he could see every letter of a document arriving on the screen.

While he is passionate about the promise technology holds for education, the minister points out that initiatives such as the National Grid for Learning face particular challenges in Scotland, with its dispersed population..

It is vital, in his view, to start preparing for the changes technology is going to bring to education. As well as learners becoming more self-reliant, Peacock agrees with the prevailing notion that teachers will have to become "less the sage on the stage than the guide by the side". Further, he believes it will require changes to the design of schools. "It is a process of fundamental change and an exciting time for education because we do have new opportunities opening up."

He mentions Channel 4's new Homework High website, where pupils can email queries to teachers, as just one example. A similar telephone-based service set up by Argyll Council for isolated pupils will soon use email as well, allowing students to collaborate with each other as well as consulting teachers. "Suddenly there are new ways of solving educational issues," Peacock comments.

The potential of technology to change education depends on the willingness of teachers to get involved, but the minister is confident that measures to address concerns about training and resources will ensure that this vital group is brought on board. Certainly the Scottish Executive has handled its scheme to help teachers buy their own computers better than the Department fr Education and Employment in England; the actual rebate is less, but it is not taxable and teachers are not restricted to a prescribed list of computers like their English colleagues.

Asked his view on The TES's campaign to secure a laptop for every teacher, Peacock responds that in an ideal world, all teachers - as well as every pupil - would have one, but does not offer any suggestions as to how that dream could be turned into reality.

Like his English counterparts, the minister is concerned about the "digital divide" and lists the initiatives Scotland has in place to try to stop the gap between technology haves and have-nots from widening. Learning centres are one solution, but Peacock acknowledges they are of little use to those living in remote areas.

However, he notes that the advent of Internet access through games consoles and digital television means the lack of a computer need not be a barrier to accessing learning through technology-based initiatives such as the University of the Highlands and Islands. A recent visit to mobile phone manufacturer Nokia in Finland only heightened his interest in the impact that convergence of computers and mobiles into one device will have on education.

Echoing similar calls made by the two Davids - Puttnam and Blunkett - last year, Peacock is trying to get the many Scottish computer games producers to play a greater role in creating educational software "to make sure that our learning materials are as engaging as computer games". He says Abertay University in Dundee was the first in the world to introduce a degree-level course in computer games design.

A similar coming together occurs on July 1 when the Scottish Council for Educational Technology merges with the Scottish Consultative Council on the Curriculum. In his view, it is a logical step to ending the idea that technology is just a add-on to education. "We think it will be a powerful driver within the system, to get technology in tune with the curriculum and the learning needs of young people," Peacock says.

Ensuring that Scottish pupils leave school competent users of information and communications technology is vital to its future economic prosperity. "Scotland has to be a digital Scotland. We must get ourselves level with rest of the world wherever we can - if we fail to do that we will lose opportunities because we are in a global marketplace."

While the big picture is clearly important to Peter Peacock, it is clear that his enthusiasm for technology centres on its ability to make education more enjoyable and more relevant: "It opens up possibilities for young people that didn't exist before, to help them lead themselves through the process of learning and motivate them in a way that they were not before."

Scottish Executive www.scotland.gov.uk email: Peter.Peacock.msp@scottish.parliament.uk

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