Modernity means constantly re-evaluating, seeking new gurus and destroying old ones, reinventing the game to fit the new paradigms.

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The Independent Culture
The battle for the innocent souls of British schoolchildren has started, with the opening salvo coming from that well-known specialist in computer-assisted learning, the Princess Royal. Addressing last week's headmasters' conference, Princess Anne warned against reliance on computers, preferring instead good old-fashioned teachers, and urging that face-to- face teaching be given priority over the virtual classroom lest kids develop inferior social skills.

Our daily communications with bosses and colleagues is increasingly done online. Long-distance relationships and partners who spend much of their working life away from home also are becoming commonplace. These changes in work and lifestyle require us to develop social skills in an online environment, and the ability to sustain friendships and love via computers is essential to our future happiness.

However, Princess Anne seems to think our rapid progress toward a global economy can be stopped and we can all go back to village life, where everybody knows each other and works on the same street. It may be hard to accept that online communities are replacing the old village ways, but we have to face up to the fact that it is happening and prepare our children to care, love and be responsible for online friends and colleagues.

The logistics of how to get our children to the right level of online social skills was left last week to Mr Modernity, Tony Blair. Catching Bill Gates between Moscow and Cambridge, Tony hoped to get the Microsoft supremo to foot the bill for the National Grid for Learning. But Bill Gates didn't budge, promising instead lots of moral support. The meeting ended with the Prime Minister promising to buy pounds 100m worth of Windows for our unsuspecting schools. Bill thought this was just fine by him and so gave his blessing to the plan. The worrying aspect of their otherwise entertaining exchange is that the Labour spin-doctors genuinely think that Gates is hot and therefore his blessing is something worth having, smoothing the rather terrifying journey of British schools into the 21st century. The fact is that technology leadership can't be bought even with Bill's money. Microsoft, as IBM before it, is a one-paradigm and one-medium company that will live or die by the personal computer.

Its fortunes, and considerably overpriced stock (at $130 per share the only way is down), are tied to a specific operating system that is unlikely to maintain its dominance in the new technological context of the Network Computer. Betting on the expensive, overly complex and unreliable PC for our schools is only going to delay the accessibility to the information superhighway and increase the price of maintenance to a level no school will be able to afford.

It's not as if there are no alternatives to the Microsoft method. Oracle, headed by the revolutionary Larry Ellison, has made huge inroads into delivering an inexpensive and easy-to-maintain NC that would be an ideal solution for the school environment. Oracle's profits have been growing by 35 per cent a year, and if I were looking for a company to make the journey to the 21st century safer, I would choose this one. It would certainly be cheaper and probably more reliable than travelling with the PC brigade.

Looking for other companions to take our children to the future, the Government would do well to look beyond the current giants like Microsoft and BT, and focus on who will rule telecommunications. Whichever way the game will go, PC or NC, someone will need to wire them up. It is becoming increasingly obvious that it will be necessary to get the blessing from Bernard Ebbers, who seems set to smash BT, AT&T and Japan's NTT in one go.

The head of WorldCom, Ebbers is sitting pretty with fibre-optic US and pan-European networks. The purchase of CompuServe's and AOL's networks makes him an owner of much of the Internet backbone. He has been buying Internet service providers, gathering the critical mass for the integration of the backbone ownership and services like Internet fax and voice. Labour advisers could do worse than inviting Ebbers to Downing Street to help plan the National Grid for Learning.

The bottom line is that in today's fast-moving technology, modernity doesn't mean nailing your colours to the current hotshot with the hope of a free ride, only later to find out that his technology was heading down a cul-de-sac. Modernity means constantly re-evaluating, seeking new gurus and destroying old ones, reinventing the game to fit the new technical paradigms. It requires building a highly flexible infrastructure that will lend itself to change and update as we go along. It needs courageous, technically competent, talented educational leaders who will know that whatever we decide on today will be obsolete in the schools of tomorrow.

However, if the modernisation process that we will put in place in schools and companies alike allows for constant, ongoing updates, if there is a skilled team of teachers who can adjust their computing skills to new paradigms, then the kids will be fine, as they learn much faster than adults. In an age of constant change it is the teachers and their lack of time and ability to keep up with the technology that should worry us, not the time they spend on teaching social skills, as requested by Princess Royal.

If in need of gurus, let's seek the truly brave visionaries who will help us to look beyond what is in front of us and on our children's desks today. Whatever it is, as sure as hell it will not be here in October 2000.

E-mail your thoughts on taking our children into the 21st century to eva@never.com.

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