The Royal Society of Arts last night staged a panel discussion, sponsored by Vodafone, on “Young People and Technology: opportunities and pitfalls in a virtual world”.  The event, chaired by Rory Cellan-Jones, the technology correspondent of BBC News, was rather disappointing, mainly because the discussion meandered around a number of themes without really focusing debate on any of them.

First and foremost, the panel was criticised for not having any young people on it.  Two other main themes emerged – both interesting but not really related to each other.  One was about the alleged pernicious effect of ICT on the quality of teaching.  With Phil Beadle arguing that £100 billion (actually the figures he used, even if accurate, only came to £1 billion) spent on providing inter-active whiteboards in every classroom was not only wasted but, in fact, has led to teachers tied to formal presentations at the front of the classroom and staying up all night to hone their Powerpoint presentations rather than interacting freely and naturally with their pupils.  He also said too often pupils are told to do work on computers to shut them up rather than to teach them.  I have some sympathy with this view, but that doesn’t mean that for some purposes some of the time new ICT tools can’t help communicate material effectively to children in the classroom.  So this strand of the discussion produced some interesting rants but failed to illuminate the more interesting question about whether a society where children spend so long on computer games and interacting by text or via social networking sites will produce adults who cannot interact with each other in more traditional ways.

The other major strand of discussion was about bullying by text or via the internet.  There is no doubt that this is becoming a serious issue – several suicides or attempted suicides stemming from this were mentioned.  However, “traditional” bullying can also have dreadful consequences for those bullied.  So is it a new or inherently different phenomenon?  The key difference, of course, is that it doesn’t end when the victim gets home and shuts the front door – the messages can still be received and there is no safe haven.  However, apart from everyone taking this much more seriously, little was offered as to what works in combating it.


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