In the year 2050, telecomputers will be ever so nifty

27th December 1996 at 00:00
It is the year 2050. All over Britain, FE students are waking up and activating their telecomputers, ready to put in an hour or two on the day's learning programme.

Students of 20th-century history are amazed to learn of a time when students had to travel before they could start learning, when they were taught by real people in educational centres, and the speed of learning was restricted to the average pace of a group of 24 or so.

Nowadays they can access any programme through their telecomputer, paying through their telephone bills for the programmes they choose. These include sound, video and text, and can provide them with the individual help they need as they proceed.

They learn at their own pace, answering written or oral questions appropriately. The telecomputers are voice-activated, so there is no need to use a keyboard. When students have taken the synoptic test at the end of a course, the result arrives almost at once through their printer in the form of a certificate.

Further education is now almost completely privatised. The television companies, competing for airtime, buy learning packages from the Qualifications and National Curriculum Authority, which employs those who prepare the packages, and awards the packages the essential quality stamp.

No learning package can be broadcast without this stamp, although there are a few pirate stations beaming alternative education from independent areas such as the Isle of Man.

The authority makes a profit on its deals with television companies and its sales of quality goods abroad, so the government is a profit-making organisation. Taxes are reduced; the salaries of those in work support the educational process. QUANCA's profits enable the Government to support the unwaged, whose benefit packages now include the telecomputer where necessary, and the telephone costs, which will allow them access to the educational programmes.

Those without a job, having time on their hands, learn quickly. This gives them extra qualifications so that they can get back to work; their money will be used to help those still in the poverty trap.

Work experience doesn't interrupt other people's work. It takes place in the home. Using their virtual reality sets students are transported into virtual factories and businesses; video-conferencing gives them the opportunity to develop the key skill of working with others.

This experience gives learners access to national vocational qualifications and encourages multi-skilling and retraining. It is particularly useful to parents with small children at home.

Students need technology counselling, both when they first get their equipment and regularly after that because of the speed of technological development. They get that by visiting their nearest Centre of Learning and Leisure (COLL), of which there is at least one in every town.

Besides technology counselling, the COLLs also offer a wide range of leisure pursuits for the whole family. The entrance fees are graded, being reduced for those who can produce learning certificates. The higher the level of qualification shown, and the more learning certificates that are produced, the greater the reduction. Qualifications are the key to employment and to a good social life.

All COLLs preserve some links with the past. The staff of these living museums carry the honorific title of "Teacher" or "Lecturer" (the titles seem to be interchangeable and vary from COLL to COLL). In them, visitors are allowed to read real books which give them a mental picture of an almost forgotten world. The book-rooms or "libraries" are very popular as they provide a welcome sanctuary from the outside world, with its hum of computers, television sound-effects and printer whirr.

The museums are inter-active, too. Visitors can, if they choose, learn to write in handwriting as a change from seeing their speech reproduced as writing on the screen. They can make music with real old-fashioned instruments, and have a go at non-computer-aided design. When they've finished getting their hands dirty with paint and clay they may be allowed to wash up the palettes and water pots, since most museums will not allow dishwashers.

Almost everyone who is over 16 is studying, has been studying recently, or will be studying again soon. You do not have to be fit and active to study, since you never have to go out into the cold or the dark. And there is so much to choose from! All the learning in the world is available to you at any level of difficulty or depth.

It is attractively packaged to appeal to all your senses, and brilliantly presented to meet your individual needs.

How strange the history students find it when they are told that in the 20th century it was difficult to persuade everyone to go on learning after they were officially allowed to stop; how strange that employers often felt that further learning once their employees could do their current job would be a waste of time.

What a sad world it seems to have been.

Anne Smith is principal of John Ruskin College, Croydon.

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