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Timewasting's only a keystroke away

Anyone who went to this year's dazzling educational technology show, BETT '98, at Olympia earlier this month, might be forgiven for thinking that they have seen the future, and that it is very nearly here.

Already there are schools in which every pupil has his or her own sturdy little laptop. There are computers which can talk to us, and very soon there will be computers which can see us, and which are smart enough to tell us how we are mispronouncing our French, or where we are going wrong in long division.

Small children will read to computers, and be encouraged by them as gently as if they were reading to real, live human beings; older ones won't think twice about having the world at their fingertips, "nipping across to Australia and calling in on Kenya on the way back, all in a dinner time", as one primary teacher at BETT '98 said his pupils already do.

For years, there have been predictions that technology will reshape our lives. Now even the most non-technological of us must get our heads round what those ways are about to be. Costs are plummeting, power is going up, and with the Government hoping to wire up every school to the Internet by 2002, the "Web lifestyle" is about to become a reality for very many more of us than it has been so far.

Sooner than most of us realise, critical mass will be reached. The balance will tip and our old bookcentric culture will be consigned to the bin, along with other quaint notions like the idea that mail is pieces of paper pushed through the front door once a day by a man or woman in a navy coat. Being wired-up will be as commonplace as having a telephone; access to everything, everywhere, all the time, will be so taken for granted that tomorrow's students will scarcely be able to imagine how it was in the Olden Days when the way you learned things was by being told them by a teacher, in a classroom, in a school.

All this is, of course, commonplace thinking to those already adjusted to a wired world, but with only 6,000 schools linked to the Internet so far, and on-line access highly limited even within the schools that are, it seems likely that there are many more in schools who have no idea what is barrelling down the road.

Take geography. Who needs a teacher to draw cross-sections of volcanoes on the blackboard, or even to push the button on a classroom video, when at a stroke you can access Volcano World, a vast database, with videos of any eruption you want to see and constantly updated data about worldwide volcanic activity? Ditto weather, Japan, rainforests, Africa, earthquakes, Antarctica, settlement patterns, and anything else you think of.

The teachers of tomorrow will have no choice but to become Web-whackers and Net-surfers, coaches and facilitators, there not to pass on knowledge but to encourage the development of higher-order skills such as source evaluation and data interpretation, not to mention the next century's most vital skill of all - time management.

Because the one thing that will remain unchanged, however much communications and information explode all around us, is the number of hours in the day. The well-educated adults of tomorrow will be those who know how to cut straight to the core of any task, who will be able to sort necessary information from superfluous, husband their hours, divide up their lives, and set limits on how much time they intend to devote to each part.

Time will become the new gold standard, against which all else will be measured. "How much is it worth?" will not be a question about money, but about precious, non-negotiable hours and minutes.

Already we adults are having to make hundreds more time-management decisions than we used to, and children too will soon be plunged into the same sea of choices. Given a project on Buddhism, say, or electromagnetic induction, and knowing that virtually the entire sum of human knowledge on these subjects, along with maps, videos, diagrams, and the chance to talk to real live Buddhists or physicists, is only a few key-strokes away, their task will be not be to find facts, but to reject them, boiling down information in a way that offers some sort of sensible balance between time spent and job accomplished.

Already, even before grid technology has arrived in the classroom, school time is as precious as water in the desert. Studies show that the amount of "time on task" has a close relationship with levels of achievement, but studies also show that a significant part of the school day is not spent "on task" at all, but in registration, relocation and remonstration.

Increasingly parents are taking it into their own hands to make up the shortfall, and after-hours teaching is burgeoning in a way never seen before. Whether it's Saturday schools for minority children, commercial maths schemes, private tuition, holiday revision courses, university-based master classes, or specialist summer schools, hundreds of thousands of children up and down the country are being taught that, when it comes to learning, there is no replacement for putting in the hours.

Meanwhile it's lack of time that has caused this month's retreat from a broad-based primary curriculum, and time - as David Blunkett rightly points out - that children most need from their parents, and parents don't give enough of.

None of us has enough hours in the day any more, nor are we going to, and what lies ahead for everyone will be ever-harder decisions about what we value, what we are going to spend our time doing, and how we are going to shape our jobs and leisure from the proliferating choices available.

The evangelists of the computer age like to tell us that technological development brings more solutions than problems: that it is, as the young ("super-excited") Microsoft executive said at Olympia, "almost all good news".

But one couldn't help but wonder if she had ever seen the rich possibilities that students find for dawdling away their time on the computer - adorning homework projects with baroque fonts and borders; manipulating photographs of famous artists so they look like gargoyles; setting out to research The Odyssey and ending up in a chat forum on alien abductions ...

Which is exactly why, although visitors to BETT '98 might have been forgiven for thinking they had seen the future, it is still as Gatsby discovered, receding before us.

Because no matter how good the hardware, the software and the linking technology, if we mere mortals still lack the skills to cope with them, then the fanciest learning network in the world will always deliver less than it promises.

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