In the 15th century, Gutenberg's press gave us science and the nation state, the Enlightenment and modern education. Can information and communications technology (ICT) do it again?
The best place to find out is in January at the Bett conference, the UK's main educational ICT event. The show was started in the Eighties by the British Educational Suppliers' Association (Besa), and is more stuffed with gizmos and gadgets than, well, at least the latest James Bond, with 600 suppliers.
"The point is to give schools a sense of what they're buying so they can make informed purchases," says Ray Barker, a Besa director. "It's not just an exhibition for selling stuff. Schools are becoming much more creative with technology, doing very exciting things," says Barker. "We want to reflect that and push things forward."
The biggest buzz of all surrounds podcasting tools. Podcasting is a multimedia file distributed over the internet using syndication feeds for playback on mobile devices and personal computers. In other words, a bit of online radio. The point of the tools is to allow students with little IT knowledge to be able to script, record, edit, publish, and promote their podcasts.
Schools are now using them in classes, to broadcast school radio and in history lessons to produce Roman radio shows. "Most of the schools we've given it to have used it in lessons," says David Pearson, managing director of Softease, which is launching its Podium Podcasting package at the show. "It can liven up some subject areas; it frees up students' imaginations."
Universities have already started using podcasts to put lectures online. Online lessons may be a way off, but Pearson thinks we could soon see teachers podcasting revision notes.
Another development in education ICT that has got people talking is educational computer games. Some see them more for their speculative features than being of real educational value. Not so, argue their designers. Altered Learning has been testing its adaptation of the Atari game Neverwinter Nights at West Nottinghamshire College, teaching basic skills to vocational further education students. In two years pass rates have gone from less than 40 per cent to over 90 per cent - this against a national benchmark of less than 25 per cent.
Altered Learning was set up by four tutors at the college. They hacked into the Neverwinter Nights game to see if they could use the basic framework, which Atari had already spent £25m developing, and make its tasks fit with QCA standards. The first version was developed to teach basic skills to vocational learners. At each stage you need to use numeracy and literacy skills to progress in the game. They have now developed a version for disaffected learners at school. "The game environment makes students engage," says Nigel Oldham, one of the four programmers. "They don't mind trying and failing, whereas before they weren't even trying."
The Bett show is not all hi-tech and futuristic. Most of the exhibits and probably most of the people attending focus on more fundamental chalk-and-slate stuff like interactive whiteboards and projectors.
The one blight on this handy piece of technology has been the problem of putting several hundred pounds worth of equipment in front of sometimes light-fingered kids. So many schools had projectors stolen that the British Educational Communications and Technology Agency asked manufacturers to develop anti-theft measures to put off potential Artful Dodgers.
Many manufacturers are now producing orange projectors. "Projectors have been an easy target for theft from schools," explains John Beeden, UK general manager at NEC UK. "Now people know [the orange projector] is meant for education purposes. Who would want that in their living room?" As well as flagging up its origins to potential buyers, NEC UK have included password protection in their new V59BE projector. Unless you know the control-panel sequence to get it running, the projector will not work. Bear in mind, however, these passwords are not much use if you do not reprogram them - as Prince Charles found out when the News of the World hacked into his phone.
Showing people how to make the most of their kit is what Bett is all about. So whether you are looking for the gadgets of the future or a handy new take on day-to-day technology, head to Olympia this January.
The Bett show runs from 10-13 January. To find out more go to www.bettshow.com