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Conversations with a machine idiot

I like computers, unless they refuse to work and start displaying error messages, at which point I could cheerfully smash them to a fine mulch with a sledgehammer.

Otherwise, they are my substitute for never having had a toy train as a child. Beep beep, toot toot. Lovely.

Like toy trains, however, there is a limit to what they can do. The problems arise when they are made to work beyond these boundaries. I have a horror of going into a computerised health diagnosis program one day and finding I am pregnant. "Help, let me out! Where is the nearest real doctor?" The availability of certain online services is a 21st-century boon. Everything is available at the touch of a keyboard and mouse.

You want a pupil-attainment analysis? It's online. Need some factual information about the subject you're teaching? Get it electronically. Fancy a tuna and cucumber sandwich? Press "Y" and one will no doubt appear round the back of your computer.

You can even take tests online. Unfortunately, as thousands of teacher trainees have discovered as they tried to do their Teacher Training Agency sums test on the computer, the systems are not yet foolproof.

"If two teachers dig one hole in three hours, how long would it take for one teacher to mark six books? You have 15 seconds."

"Er . . . I'll have a double burger and large fries please."

"With or without mayonnaise?" "Is the answer 30 minutes?" "Incorrect. Small fries, no ketchup. Level 1.89. Resit required, resit required . . ."

It worries me when printouts and computer diagnoses are given far more credibility than they sometimes deserve. Then the medium becomes the message. Precise-looking figures to two decimal places and a neatly-boxed set of results make the whole thing look as if the secrets of the universe are being revealed. Yet, if random numbers were supplied, the outcome would look just as impressive. It's a machine, damn it.

Modern computer programs are said to be so sophisticated that you are not supposed to be able to recognise that you are interacting with a machine rather than a human being. But you can. Anyone with any sense knows howthese things work.

"I'm feeling depressed."

"Why are you feeling depressed, Malcolm?" "The deputy head keeps telling me I'm no good as a teacher."

"Tell me more about the deputy head, Malcolm".

That is robot speak, as the computer gropes for sense, blindly obeying its machine-coded instructions: "Tell me more about X", feeding back its victim's own phrases. It is very tempting to foul up the whole, neat little charade.

"I'm feeling splinged."

"Why are you feeling splinged, Malcolm?" "The Obergauleiter keeps telling me I'm no good as a mortuary attendant."

"Tell me more about the Obergauleiter, Malcolm."

So I feel increasingly concerned about some of the mechanised online services being touted in education.

Pupil tests, for example, are almost certain to be yesno or multiple-choice items, because more qualitative assessments are problematic for programmers. It offers a very limited view of assessment.

Nor am I too convinced by individual pupil predictions and targeting. Some pupils nowadays are being predicted to pick up a hatful of A* grades at GCSE, simply because they did well in their key stage 3 assessments. The poor beggars can easily see themselves as failures if they fall short.

Then there are the online teacher skill diagnostic programs - purporting to assess and improve professional competence, usually on the basis of pupil questionnaires. They have a limited place, but cannot begin to match advice from a skilled observer.

In the end, the computer, instead of being the servant, becomes the master, moving education into programmed multiple-choice mode. Knowledge and skills are segmented, dismembered, chopped into byte-sized chunks, served up with ketchup and a large bill.

"I would throw most of these online programs in the bin."

"Why would you throw them in the bin, Malcolm?" "They look more precise than they are and see people as robots. Machines are idiots."

"Why are machines idiots, Malcolm?" "A double tripe-burger please, with sauce."

"I don't do irony, Malcolm. That will be pound;399 plus VAT."

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