Virtual winds of change

18th September 1998 at 01:00
As a determined truant, I found it easy to decide to disappear because of what was happening in the classroom. If it was a choice between ritual humiliation and a clip around the ear when you hadn't learned your Chaucer by rote, or a trip to the local coffee bar with a juke box stacked with Tamla Motown and Stax, it was simple. "What becomes of the broken-hearted" was immeasurably easier on the ears than "A knyght ther was, and that a worthy man, That fro the tyme that he first bigan To riden out, he loved chivalrie I" And for those lessons where it wouldn't be too painful to be dragged back into class, a sidestep into the school library for a quiet hour of Russian literature would probably suffice. They would never think of looking for you there. In those low-tech, or no-tech, days it didn't take long for us to work out that, when you are alienated enough, you can run rings around any register.

That was a long time ago, and teaching has changed. So has school management. In these days of electronic registers, optical mark readers, swipe cards, remote video cameras - everything short of electronic tagging - it would be rather more difficult to disappear (see pages 4-5). But for schools using technology to help tackle truancy, it is wise to look at the issues broadly, consider the links with exclusions and understand that technology can also be used to make school more attractive as well as more secure. It's a question of culture. When school is a richer and more stimulating environment, it is one that you are less likely to want to escape.

At the other, more severe, end of this technology divide, the most determined truants would probably make a very quick decision when faced with daunting security - it's best not to go in at all if you can't be sure of getting out.

Information and communications technology provides many options. European-funded programs (see page 10) are showing how children who can't attend school because of their home circumstances can still reach learning via ICT. That they are doing it with an already redundant technology (CD-I - CD Interactive) is irrelevant - ordinary CD-Roms could now do virtually the same and more. And the NotSchool.Net scheme is a brave attempt to reach both these students and others who, for whatever reason, wouldn't be seen dead at school.

These developments are indicative of the changes that technology is able to bring when it reaches maturity and when education changes sufficiently to exploit it.

That there is some way to go is emphasised by Seymour Papert, the US academic known as the creator of the educational programming language Logo (see page 28). He irked a few academics during his visit to these shores in the summer with his criticism of Britain imposing such a fixed curriculum just when technology looks just like changing everything - but he certainly provided food for thought.

For those students fleeing Chaucer, Papert's approach would have turned us on our heels. And the sort of multimedia technology and Internet provision that is now going into many schools, and the cultural shift that it can bring, would have made a huge difference. The Internet's treasure chest of up-to-date information on contemporary music would have been an irresistible magnet, along with the international email collaborations that it can stimulate.

In later years most truants would concede that, although they may have found different routes to learning, their earlier years could have been the most profitable for their education. If, that is, there had been a way in for them.

After years of technological hype and hyperbole, it seems we are finally moving into a phase where schools must change. Seymour Papert puts his faith in pupils: "Children sense that they are out of sync with the time in which they live." The challenge for schools is to get into sync, and the possibilities in the latest round of investment in equipment and training for school improvement, and the National Grid for Learning offer just that. And even Chaucer at our fingertips - with translation.

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