Generation Digital

Rupert Goodwins: The Internet is a part of life for most teenagers, and the education system needs to face up to the challenge that presents.

Is there ever a time when teenagers aren't scary? Goodwins at primary school found the big kids terrifying, a feeling that didn't go away when I became a big kid myself. And now I'm thundering through the thirtysomething years, the yoot' who hang around the Holloway Road are clearly the vanguard of some sullen revolution and up to no good whatsoever.

Of course, it's nothing like that at all. When they take time off from the general madness of adolescence, most teenagers are the same mix of enthusiasm, anarchy, prurience, energy and intelligence as they've always been, and just as unwilling to display it.

There is one big difference: these people are totally, unconditionally and inextricably digital. Computers are no longer the preserve of the speccy nerds -- they'll have to find something else to be incomprehensible about now -- but a basic teenage human right, up there with trainers, junk food and bad hair years. Forget seventies revivals, the width that matters now isn't that of your Lionels but that of your Internet connection.

Some may say this is because of the Internet's peerless ability to deliver ripped off software, music and rudeness to a consumption-obsessed but cash-strapped demographic. This is of course an atrocious slur on the high-mindedness and purity of spirit of our young people, albeit a true one. But it's not all ripped-off ring tones and the movie files they think their parents don't know about; they're using the Internet for education of a far more traditional sort. That's not just an excuse, it's a phenomenon.

Kids at school know what's expected of them, and with a ferocious instinct know how to use the Internet to get there. Overwhelmingly, this happens outside school and outside teacher supervision. They're not all equally skilled at this, but often they're better at winkling out information than are their teachers -- those twin aspects of growing up, obsession and spare time, find a natural home online.

But what kids don't have is a sense of why the Internet's use for education should fit in with the old way of doing things. Schooling has by its nature been tied to individual achievement -- you do the work by yourself and get assessed by your individual skills. The Internet doesn't work like that: the moment you're online researching that essay, you're there with thousands of others doing the same thing. That Google search for rainfall figures for the Amazon basin will throw up as many chat forums as it does source materials -- the Net practically enforces group collaboration. Suddenly, your personal ability to absorb and use information towards a goal is mixed with your ability to work as a team, to communicate and to analyse what others in your position are doing.

That's not traditional education -- in fact, it's suspiciously close to old-school cheating -- but it's awfully close to real life. Neither you nor I know what parts of our schooling are still a useful part of our working life, but precious few of the facts that I endlessly learned, sifted and regurgitated during the seven years of my secondary education are called upon these days. Yes, I did the Amazon basin water cycle, and even passed an exam. I can't remember a drop of it. If I need it, I look it up on Google, same as someone doing homework. No point in memorising it. Yet a child entering secondary education today will have some forty exams to cope with before they get out: a waste of irrecoverable time, and they know it.

There is an irony in our building a global, accessible network of enormous knowledge and freedom, and then complaining that the kids are abusing it. There are a great many legitimate worries-- who validates the information? How do you stop mindless copying? How do you ensure equality of access? -- that are the natural provenance of the educators. There is no point -- and much damage -- in trying to make the Net fit into an education system that assumes the basic unit of knowledge is the book, and the basic mode of communication is an essay written in purdah and read in haste.

I fear that a lot of our resistance to clearly seeing what's happened is our innate suspicion that the kids are a feckless lot, more given to swinging the lead than forging ahead. Some may even be jealousy: I had to learn the Hundred Years war, so why should anyone these days have it easier? Some is just the pain inherent in any transition. But the sooner we realise that we'll have to rebuild education around the revolution, not the other way around, the happier everyone will be. Even the teenagers. Bet they still won't show it, mind.

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