Computer technology can be a positive influence in schools, but as Jack Kenny finds out, there are some dangerous side-effects
Few people acknowledge the possibility that the computer in school might be a Trojan horse. The eminent US scientist, Seymour Papert, is one of those who does. He once said putting a computer into school was like putting a jet engine on a stagecoach - you gain a temporary increase in speed, but then the whole thing is wrecked. One casualty in the wreckage might be personal relationships between teachers, pupils and parents.
Ian Mann, learning technology manager at Dixon's city technology college in Bradford, says one of the Internet's most profound effects on education is the potential redefinition of the teacherpupil relationship. He says teachers should watch what is already happening in doctors' surgeries, where patients with Internet access often arrive believing they know as much, or more, about their condition as the doctor. The idea that doctor knows best is becoming increasingly outdated.
"Professional relationships are changing. Respect for professions was traditionally based on expert knowledge," says Mr Mann. "Once that knowledge becomes widely available the mystique starts to go, and respect has to be earned. Nowadays, patients may know more about the relevant treatment than the GP because they got it from the Internet."
He says teachers are already noticing a similar effect. "The traditional role of the teacher as someone with a body of knowledge to pass on each year is breaking down. If a teacher tells pupils the class will be covering a certain topic next week, even primary pupils may search the Internet and find relevant material, then come to the lesson better equipped with facts and information than the teacher."
Niel McLean, director of schools at Becta, the Government's advisory body on technology in education, says: "Confusing knowledge with competence is an English disease. We tend to over-respect professions that draw on knowledge, and under-respect those where we don't see the knowledge base - professional footballers, for instance. If all you've got is knowledge, then go on Who Wants to be a Millionaire? You need a knowledge reservoir and you need to understand the process of learning. Processes without the underlying knowledge are like pub arguments: well articulated but uninformed."
Steve Moss, Cumbria's national grid for learning manager, has been trialling the kind of online material that might be offered to all schools in the near future. "High-quality online materials such as the BBC's digital media national curriculum project will have a profound effect on teacherpupil relationships," he says. "At the moment, teachers control the learning process in terms of time, place and access to texts."
"The availability of the BBC interactive curriculum materials to any user with the bandwidth will blow this out of the water. We are trialling key stage 3 geography materials on Brazil in four secondary schools. Pupils can take the resources home and install them on their PCs for personal study."
Alastair Wells, head of ICT at Netherhall school in Cambridge, warns that over-reliance on online material can destroy the process of debate and discovery that lies at the heart of true learning. He says a single answer is rarely appropriate in education. "Most issues and theories in science, for instance, have models and alternatives as well as associated information - experiment, debate and discussion which the teacher integrates. Websites don't do that. I have yet to find a website that operates like a teacher. Parents rarely understand the national curriculum and syllabus requirements, let alone assessment criteria."
Chris Thatcher, president of the National Association of Head Teachers and chair of its IT committee, can see the relationshps shifting already. He is ambivalent about the wisdom of giving parents e-mail access to teachers. "It increases and enhances the opportunities for parents to become involved in the education of their children. But imagine the demands that would be placed upon teachers if 30 parents, assuming maximum class sizes, e-mailed daily."
He adds: "If we start setting homework via websites, given BBC and Channel 4 initiatives about using their resources to improve performance, it won't be long before we see clashes between teachers and parents or children who believe they know better or get a different answer."
Mr Thatcher says education must change and adapt to suit this new opportunity rather than retrench and protect, and that teachers will need support, encouragement and good models to show that it can be done without increasing workloads. However, in the main, the response of UK education has been to dig the trenches. This Government has followed the lead of its predecessor in trying desperately to preserve what it calls "standards".
But children entering school now perceive the world in a very different way than their parents or teachers did. The multicultural, multimedia, multidimensional, interactive world they were born into, which floods them with a never-ending stream of data, is not new to them as it is to teachers. Synapses in young brains can easily cope with multiple messages. Previous generations, brought up in a linear world, with experiences paced out over time, find it difficult. Creating schools modelled on the old world will not help students to succeed in the fast-paced, multidisciplinary world of the future.
Ian Mann says good teaching might be more difficult in this new world, but he points out that being a good teacher and inspiring students has nothing to do with technology. "It's just that the good teacher has more tools now. Students, surrounded by multimedia in all aspects of their lives, are beginning to expect that in schools. Some teachers will embrace the technology, others will not, and students will make comparisons. They will want to know why technology is not used. That will pressure teachers."
Mr Wells says: "ICT aware teachers have street cred. Those teachers who don't use ICT are seen as fuddy-duddies."
Jim Wynn is an ex-headteacher of a large comprehensive school in Kent who now works in the commercial sector of ICT and education. "ICT is a motivator," he says. "The evidence, while largely anecdotal, is so common that it just must be true. But it is not so powerful that it will convert young people into self-motivated learners who need no direction. And while there is a statutory national curriculum, there remains - and for some time to come - an obligation for a child's education to be steered along that path.
"The introduction of ICT need not affect teachers' relationships with children. Teachers, as the managers of learning, might be challenged about how to employ ICT in each of their teaching strategies. But if they seriously think about the effect it will have, they should be able to exploit the new environment rather than be surprised by it."
For the future, Ian Mann is concerned about professionalism and the way control has been ceded to people outside teaching. He believes teachers will gain respect only by being more pro-active."I would like to see the profession taking the initiative, saying things like, 'We have a problem with literacy and this is how we will address it'."
Chris Thatcher is clear: "We are talking about a revolution in the way teachers function. Teachers in 20 years' time will have to use technology and the increase in information and knowledge that it gives to the best advantage of the youngsters. Ultimately they will have no choice."
Becta's Niel McLean says simply: "Let's work out what the real job is."