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Time to fill the empty promises

In the run-up to a general election, most politicians become good listeners. So, says Stephen Heppell, now is the time to whisper your technology wish lists in the appropriate ears

Some years back at Ultralab, Anglia Polytechnic University's information technology research unit, we ran a conference called "Never mind the technology, where's the learning?" Now at the height of the current Internet hype, it is timely to remind ourselves what is needed to bring the reality of most teachers' lives in line with the pundits' promises: "never mind the technology, where's the spare time?" Any suggestions that result in more work or "personal commitment" from teachers will be doomed to failure. If we simply gave 100 new computers to every secondary school the chances are that the teachers, trying to cope with what is already there, would simply collapse at the thought of another 100 problems to resolve.

So, with an eye on the forthcoming Year of the Internet, what is needed? Given the approaching general election, almost certainly bringing political change of some sort, it is a good time for teachers, students and parents to stand up and shout loud for what they want.

Teachers need three things. First, they need a computer of their own, to take home and work with, and time to explore it. The current Government initiative to place 750 portable computers in schools in England is not going to make much impact on a teaching force of some 420,000. We need something more radical, and that means tax breaks. Teachers can claim essential text books, or heat and light for a marking room against their income tax, so why can't we say a computer is essential teaching equipment and allow it to be offset against tax, saving a third of the purchase price and boosting domestic sales in the process? Shout loud for tax deductions on teacher's computers.

Second, with so much wonderful curriculum material available on the Internet, teachers should not have to worry about telephone charges. Telephone companies in the United States provide free local calls, and many of Britain's economic rivals enjoy cheap connections. A few lucky big city schools already have this privilege through cable operators, but we need free local calls for all schools now. Lobby your MP and reverse the charges when you call!

Third, teachers need appropriate software, and this is usually a very long way from what Bill Gates thinks they need. For example, word processors store the latest version of a student's document, which is fine for office life, but teachers need to see drafts and development to be able to offer formative assessment. For a teacher, the perfect word processor would store a student's work as a movie file showing the word-by-word development of a story. New component software packages (built around the widely adopted OpenDoc standard) look set to meet this kind of request from teachers, although this may not suit the software giants. Pester software vendors to provide the democracy and flexibility of OpenDoc.

Our students are clear about the two things they want. Nortel's long-term project, giving a substantial number of school students their own electronic mail box and direct communication with scientists and engineers in the Nortel laboratories, shows that UK students relish the opportunity to collaborate electronically with AOTs (adults other than teachers) and with their peers in other schools, supported by mediation from their own teachers.

Nortel's investment demonstrates that children want their own e-mail address and the opportunity to use it. There is also clear evidence that UK students, from reception age upwards, appreciate the new skills and strategies they are evolving through their computer keyboards, quickly becoming adept Internet contributors, for example. They can also see that the current examination and testing system is ostrich-like in its stubborn refusal to acknowledge these new capabilities, indeed exam boards are currently trying to pretend calculators don't exist either. Children are shouting loud for their skills to be noticed. Help them make the exam boards listen.

Parents want to know that the learning they increasingly see going on around them in the home is recognised in school. Too often, the school-home relationship has consisted of trying to build a tiny capsule of class life in the home through homework with, where money permits, children sitting at little desks in their bedrooms. Schools have never been very good at recognising children's achievements outside that little capsule, but a consistent lesson from Internet-based projects, like the Department of Trade and Industry's Schools OnLine (see page 6), is that children learn in exciting new ways outside the classroom.

Schools now have to wrestle with how they value that home learning and the social equity problems that come along with it. Parents are beginning to become impatient for answers.

Politicians contemplating the above should appreciate that all of it is comparatively cheap. Set alongside the size of the family vote, it looks like a case of promises well spent as the next election looms. Start your lobbying now - for once, all politicians are listening hard.

* Professor Stephen Heppell is director of Ultralab at Anglia Polytechnic University

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