Neil Levis hears Ultralab's passionate professor, Stephen Heppell, expound the virtues of empowerment through computers at the latest TES-Keele University seminar
The irony is glaring. The man who is singlehandedly doing more than any other to enlighten government thinking on the use of computers in schools believes that the technology itself represents a threat to education.
Stephen Heppell says that the power of electronic communication enables us to redefine our learning communities - a phrase he uses a lot - so that education becomes a passionate, exciting, more intimate experience.
The professor who runs Ultralab, the research unit at Anglia University in Chelmsford, Essex, and who sits on more government committees, task forces and think tanks concerned with technology than almost anyone else, says that we need to be thinking now about what kind of schools we would like in the future so that we can feed our ideas into Labour's manifesto machine - since it seems likely that the party will be re-elected in 2002.
He was addressing his remarks to the third of this year's TES-Keele University Improving Schools Network seminars, where he presented school managers with a stimulating view of where computers are taking us and what they are empowering us to escape from.
The first thing that Heppell would obviously like us to rethink are the large schools that were built to deliver education to the masses when universal education was first introduced. With factory-sized buildings came the language of industry: middle management, targets, standardsI failure.
The model of learning under this system was notational: we digested information and then reproduced it in examinations.
But technology means that the emphasis should be switching from the product to the process, says Heppell. We should not be judging children by the work they put in front of us - many teachers at Keele and elsewhere have expressed their concerns about the problems of plagiarism that technology highlights - instead we should be concentrating on how they learn.
Log on to the Ultralab website and you'll find a discussion document that Heppell wrote on the future of schooling in Europe. "Children are active not passive learners and this means they need to use their computers primarily as learning tools not as teaching machines. They learn with a computer, not from a computer. Software tools should empower them as contributors rather than simply empowering them to explore others' work: authoring as well as browsing, annotating as well as selecting. It must be ICT (information and communications technology), not IDT (information dissemination technology)."
The most disarming thing about Heppell is that he talks on a high intellectual plain but he laughs a lot. Almost every third sentence he cracks a joke. So you really believe him when he says that learning should be fun.
But it is that fun element that is dangerous for schools because it challenges the traditional curriculum and the manner in which it is taught. Technology is the friend of disenchanted learners because it enables them to find their own path to knowledge and understanding. Everybody is hungry to learn, says Heppell; it's a question of breaking down the barriers.
He took his Keele audience on a tour of some of his Ultralab projects to show us what can be done: l Learning in the Millennium: since 1993, groups of pupils from eight to 18 have been communicating electronically in open discussion groups with scientists at Nortel, the sponsors.
On certain subjects, the young children take the lead and become the experts. Would this have happened, asks Heppell, if they had been communicating face to face? The electronic world gives the children a different identity, a parity of esteem which redefines the learning community.
l ETui, the intelligent, electronic toy that learns from children. If children play with a toy that they can teach, they will come to understand something about the learning process at the same time as having fun.
* NotSchoolNet is enabling school refusers to be seduced back to learning. Thirty youngsters in Essex and Strathclyde are being given a fresh start by working electronically in groups of up to four with a teacher-facilitator backed up by undergraduates who are paid to tutor them in subjects of the youngsters' choice.
* TescoNet2000: the supermarket giant has invested pound;7 million to pay for a website and 42 advisory teachers to provide back-up. There is a vast library of writing tasks, all linked to the national curriculum, and a growing archive of children's work which Heppell finds exciting.
So far, 15,800 schools have joined up and, in the 90 minutes he was conducting the Keele seminar, he told us, 400 new children would have logged on to make fresh contributions. "It's like a children's exercise book that the whole world can see," said Heppell.
Pupils have an extraordinary sense of audience, he says, which provides them with great motivation. They have installed a database which would replace rude words with asterisks, but they have not yet been triggered. Commonsense and self-censorship prevail in the electronic world.
l E-mail addresses for every pupil: the aim is obvious: to get every pupil connected to the Internet as soon as is feasible.
There are many other projects at Ultralab and more in the pipeline. Companies are queuing up with project ideas, and Heppell is obviously excited by the chance to explore new possibilities. But there are limits to what any one individual can do, just as there are limits to what can be taught in an already overcrowded curriculum.
Heppell believes that technology has now reached that point where it has stopped getting in our way and is enabling us to redefine our future schools. It is no longer a question of what we can do; we need to be asking what we want to do.
Technology lets us decide how we would like to organise our learning communities - why, for instance, is the month of September such an important factor in the way we organise our schooling? Should it not now be thrown out along with slide rules and log tables and the other detritus of a bygone age?
The hard question is: what do we chuck away? Yet, what does it profit us if we install all this wonderfully dexterous and expensive equipment and then simply use it to deliver the traditional curriculum? What's the point, says Heppell, of having great tools but only mundane targets?