Lighting a fire in IT teaching

If you can't decode this, it's time to go back to school: FOR F=1 to 3: PRINT "Education ";: NEXT F

Revolutions drive education. In the 19th century, the British industrial revolution created a parallel revolution in the schools: an illiterate working class is fine when muscle power drives the economy, but hopeless in a world of steam and electricity.

For a while, it seemed as if the same insight was at work in the second industrial revolution. The creation of widespread, affordable information technology in the late 1970s and early 1980s was matched by a perception that education should follow. Government policy and national institutions joined forces in initiatives such as the BBC Microcomputer, the 1982 Year of Information Technology, the Microelectronics Education Programme, and "Micro in Schools", which put a British computer in every secondary school.

The response from the children was enthusiastic. A wave of technically capable and creatively inspired experts spread out, with the results still readily apparent in the top echelons of technology, new media and gaming companies across the world.

In 2006, by comparison, we have paradox. Modern schools overflow with technology as far beyond the BBC Micro as an Airbus is past Stephenson's Rocket, but IT itself is seen as a dull and unexciting. The result, says the British Computing Society, is a dangerous lack of core skills which will leave the UK at a huge disadvantage.

We cannot go back to the days when the technology itself was exciting purely because of its novelty. We can — and should — recreate the environment where IT wasn't a barrier to expression but an invitation, where an hour's education revealed a week's worth of new ideas to explore. With open standards and the inherent modularisation of Web 2.0, we can make a new curriculum of creativity, one that reveals the way IT works without drowning minds beneath a sea of tedious, apparently arbitrary detail.

It will take insight, energy and a lot of work. It certainly won't happen without leadership and a willingness to take risks, to involve the willing from all parts of the industry. The information revolution may be 20 years old, but it is changing faster than ever and that means our approach to education must be similarly revolutionary. We have the tools at hand: we should at least start the job.