System failure

6th May 2005 at 01:00
Whenever people from the world of educational technology get together, whether it's a training day, a conference or a local get-together, there are a few rituals that are always observed.

I don't just mean the blokes talking about what their new mobile phones can do. Or even how many different excuses they can find to show why they need to buy an iPod, without admitting that they just really, really want one.

The other great obligatory moment is when the speaker starts talking about how much "learning is going to be transformed".

They use "transform" because it makes people feel less nervous than"change". Transform is more other-worldly, with a slightly transcendental feel, as if a golden glow is going to descend around us.

And if you said it more directly, as "learning is going to be changed", it begs the next question: "What's it going to be changed into?"

Because even though for years we've been talking about how much ICT is going to "revolutionise" the classroom, in practice, schools have absorbed technology without that much of an upheaval.

The children get to draw and write on screen as well as on paper, there's a whiteboard rather than a blackboard, we have a heavily supervised search on Google once a week and Mrs Gatsby sits at her PC in her office checking the holiday websites when she thinks we can't see her.

But have we seen a revolution? The children still use more technology at home than at school.

And it's about time we dropped all that cheerleader stuff about ICT being a magic wand for motivation and self-esteem. I've seen too many promotional videos where you'd think that if teenage boys hadn't used a computer in school they'd all be out robbing off-licences every night.

These kids are downloading music, emailing and texting each other and using the internet at home every day, so they're not going to be "transformed" by 10 minutes with a CD-Rom in a history lesson.

But now that I've let off all that steam, can I say that I went to another conference the other day where I heard something that might make a real difference, and not without some problems for schools.

It was about "virtual learning environments". I know that sounds like another PAFA (pointless acronyms for anoraks), but if you can ignore the ugliness of the phrase, it could mean something important.

The idea of a virtual learning environment is that schools give online access to learning materials and information about the curriculum to pupils and parents at home.

It could also hold detailed information about an individual pupil's progress, to which parents could have access.

It's like a big online annexe, part-library, part-information desk, which is open all the time, where pupils can get help from home and where parents can find out what their offspring are meant to be learning.

It sounds fairly innocuous. But the implications are huge. It might sound pretentious, but it raises such questions as: "What's a school for?"

These days, families have more technology at home and work than Nasa used to have in mission control.

They expect information to be at their fingertips, day and night. But what do they know least about? Often, it's what goes on in their children's school.

What is the curriculum? What should their child have learned today? How far have they reached this term? Why can't my child have next term's lesson plans so that she can get ahead?

Of course, teachers are going to say: "Back off, get your modems off our lawns." But it's going to be difficult. Because once information is available, it's hard to ignore.

Who controls this information? Should schools make available the whole shooting match - learning materials, lesson plans and assessment methods? Would that be a way of de-professionalising ourselves?

And why not have help during the evening? I've heard suggestions for an educational version of NHS Direct, where pupils and parents could get out-of-hours advice. How would we feel about that kind of back-seat driver giving their opinions to parents?

As someone once told me at the end of a particularly relaxed staff party: once you let the genie out of the bottle, you can't stop him having a big drink.

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