By about five years old, I had a clear idea of what it meant to make a “syntax error”. Punching lines of BASIC programming language into my 1980s Amstrad computer to make it behave like the Joshua program from the movie Wargames, or more often just getting a cassette-loading game to work, quickly taught me precision and resilience. A single error could render many lines of code useless.
As I got older and tried to design my own text-adventure games with hundreds of lines of code, I never questioned the importance of word order or spelling accuracy. Similarly, I spent much of the 90s staring at DOS prompts and fiddling with files labelled things like "config.sys" and "autoexec.bat", and it was thrilling because it felt like one mistake could break the machine.
Like continental children raised with a glass of wine in their hands, early familiarity demystified technology enough for me to see it as a useful tool, often entertaining, but never a necessity. I am definitely in the cynical camp when it comes to edtech.
I worked in an institution that had trialled giving every student and member of staff an iPod Touch. It had been an expensive exercise with the devices rarely used in the classroom, never effectively, and with no impact on learning. However, the leadership had already decided on the route they were taking so despite the evidence before them, and the aftershocks of a grade 4 inspection from Ofsted, they moved ahead with the second phase of equipping everyone with iPads. There was neither direction nor restraint. It was a disaster. In the words of one of my GCSE students at the time: “I used to read before bed. Now I play pointless games on my iPad.”
Ironically, this was at the same time that Los Angeles was suing Apple after investing $1.3 billion in a much larger version of the same foolish iPad rush.
Embracing remote working
Last year, though, I was optimistic when the excellent media services team in my current college offered me a Microsoft Surface tablet computer to trial. In a cross-college role, I had become acutely conscious of the limitations of networked desktop computers. Any initial activity that required video, images, sound or slides, would leave me sweating as I stared at the Windows login, willing it to get a bloody move on while my students willed me to do the same. Then, once I was “in”, opening whichever application I needed and staring at a white screen of death would force me to abandon whatever 30-second opener I’d planned anyway.
The Surface was everything I’d ever wanted. It had the “instant on” appeal of an iPad, but then could do everything a PC could do, just faster. I carried a cable around with me, so if I ever needed something on screen quickly it would be there just as soon as I could unscrew the existing connection. If you’ve ever walked into a classroom with the desktop unplugged from the projector, that was probably me. Sorry.
I’m proud to feel that in the past year I’ve modelled cross-college working by insinuating myself into all of the faculties I serve. Often, fast-growing vocational teams will not have the space to provide a permanent desk or desktop computer for transient English and maths teachers, but the Surface has allowed me to “go native” unobtrusively. I might have to slide a tray of brushes aside in hair and beauty, or move a paddle board to find a power socket in outdoor ed, or scrounge stationery over in “new directions”, but I can truly work shoulder to shoulder with my learners’ tutors.
Engaging with tutors has meant sacrificing face-to-face time with my own team, though, and the Surface has helped there in a number of ways. One example is the Trello app. Essentially it’s a pin board of lists; “to do”, “doing”, “done”. But by assigning tasks to individuals or groups, attaching deadlines and prioritisation, and providing room for focused dialogues, it creates an open and democratic space for any group working together. My 21-strong team of English teachers are already exemplary collaborators, but I think Trello will be another tool to help us with the remote working that we need to embrace.
Teaching through little black mirrors?
The Surface hasn’t really changed my classroom practice, though. I remain unconvinced of the need for a wholesale rush to teach through little black mirrors. I achieved my own clumsy confidence with technology with relatively little exposure to computers throughout most of my schooling. However, I did have the extraordinary privilege of high levels of access outside the classroom. An Amstrad in the early 80s cost as much as a car.
The need for equal opportunities with technology should not shut off other opportunities. Taking physical books and quality teaching away from a disadvantaged student so that they can have a free iPad is the 21st-century equivalent of “Let them eat cake.” We must instead invest in projects like our home-grown Raspberry Pi that puts the jigsaw pieces of digital innovation in the nimble, enquiring hands of young people without a Californian, look-at-me price tag. Some FE colleges offer computing and robotics facilities beyond the wildest dreams of school sixth forms, and those schools need to be open to partnerships that give their disadvantaged students the appropriate access and consequent aspiration much earlier.
Ultimately, though, familiarity with obsolete programming languages from the past century did not equip me for adult, professional life in the 2010s so much as the literacy that came from a home where books were present and valued. I interact with my Surface through words and every brilliant thing that it does for me is in support of communicating something. To produce the technology-literate generation that will take up the much-mythologised “jobs of the future” we need to focus on actual literacy. Confidence and competence with language prepares us for any future.
Andrew Otty leads 16-19 English in a South-West college. He tweets @Education720