Have you heard about the man who rang his computer advice line to report: "I've broken the cup-holder on the front of my computer"? It's unlikely that anyone ever really thought that the CD-Rom drive was a cup-holder - but it's one of the stories you hear whenever telephone support people gather together. Another is the one about the man who rang up to ask where the Any key was after being told to press any key.
Some of the people who provide IT telephone and technical support across the country work for companies that deal with schools a lot, but they are more often to be found in local authority IT centres and support services in higher education. Many become friends of the schools with which they deal. Steve Oram and Les Squirrel are two examples, and they have strong views about the kind of service that teachers deserve, based on many years working in inner London. Previously based at the Inner London Educational Computing Centre, they are now part of the team at the University of North London IT Learning Exchange.
Oram feels that the service they provide for schools by telephone is more than just support. "I think we are really offering a form of in-service training, " he says."We circulate helpsheets for example, which schools find very valuable: we've just sent one out about a problem we've discovered which affects computers with a particular combination of video card and printer."
The knowledge that telephone support is available can give teachers the confidence to try something new. "Having someone to call gives you the security of knowing there is someone to talk to; it's like stress insurance. It doesn't matter what level they are at, we can shift our response. Then you don't end up with only one person in the school who knows how everything works."
The pair find that calls to their helpline come in bursts before and after school and at breaktimes, and they are ready to deal with that - which is one difference between a dedicated education helpline and the kind of general service to homes and businesses. Another way in which this service understands the constraints under which education works is that they do not expect callers to be able to have a phone next to the computer; an impossibility in many schools.
The quality of the service offered by the IT Learning Exchange was recognised by a Silver Award at the BETT 96 educational technology show, and it is contracted to provide technical support for SMILE Maths software and for Research Machines in the inner London area. "But we don't just support the new machines; we can still support the older stuff," says Squirrel.
There have been cuts in most local support services in recent times, but good telephone support services for computers have usually survived.
The rapid advance of the Internet into schools offers new ways of providing support, methods which the IT Learning Exchange is investigating. The technology exists, for example, to take over control of a user's computer remotely and attempt to sort out the problem.
Teachers today are not vastly more technically competent than their predecessors, but fortunately for them IT hardware and software is becoming easier to use.
* University of North London IT Learning Exchange, School of Teaching Studies, 166-120 Holloway Road London N7 8DB Tel: 0171 753 5092 e-mail: itle@rmplc. co.uk.