Abandon hope all ye who enter the computer suite

28th November 2008 at 00:00

Never work with animals or children. So said W C Fields, whose idea of recreation was to go to dinner at his mother-in-law's with a lighted cigar balanced on his head. To Fields' shortlist of prohibitions we might add "technology". At least if we are a teacher we might.

The piece of technology I have in mind is the computer, or rather the room full of things known as the IT room - a place where all hope is abandoned at the door, but one from which you cannot escape whatever your subject these days, given that now we are to some extent all teachers of IT.

The problems begin even before you cross the threshold. For some reason, the number pads for entry to these rooms are fixed at a level convenient for a hobbit. So you always start your class on your knees, swearing loudly, because the first three codes you enter are those for the other IT rooms you were in yesterday. Your students help out by gathering around, pointing at you and laughing.

Once inside, your real problems start. "Don't log on yet!" you shout before bums even touch seats. You know that if they do, you've lost them. As computers are infinitely more interesting than you are, you'll never be able to get their attention back to tell them what they are supposed to be doing.

As ever, you first check the printer. And, as always, there is no paper in the tray, and the previous occupant has left you a paper jam to clear. Cue the second bout of swearing.

Once that's fixed, you nip next door to cadge 50 sheets of A4, reminding everyone not to log on as you go. While you are out - going down three floors to find any paper - half of the students log on and start checking their emails and Facebook entries.

You put the paper in the printer, and it starts churning out all the queued jobs left by the last class. By the time it's finished, half of your precious stock has been used up.

Ignoring the fact that none of the students is listening to you, you run over the IT room rules. No eating or drinking, back up your files, and remember the healing power of the "undo" facility. Most crucially, never send anything to print without checking how many pages it is - particularly with websites.

Even before you have finished, people all around the room are calling for your help. One says stroppily that his computer doesn't work. You point out that it might help if he first pressed the "on" button. Three can't log on, though all swear blind that they have remembered their passwords correctly. You sort two of them out by taking off the caps lock, but the third problem is beyond resolution - that is to say, you are not capable of resolving it.

But the student is giving you that look you have seen so often before. It means, "It's your fault." In the IT room, everything is your fault. You might think technical problems should be solved by technicians, and that when a student does something so mind-achingly stupid that even a lobotomised chimpanzee would have got it right that it's the student's error. But no, in the IT room it is your fault - you and only you are to blame. The student can't log on because he's forgotten his password. But it's your fault.

"What am I going to do? If I can't log on, I haven't got any work to do."

This comes out as a plaintive and insistent bleat. As it does so, three more students call for you to come and sort out their problems.

So far, you have taught nothing to anybody, unless you count the swearing - and they know all those words anyway.

You leave the bleater to his bleats. You'd like to tell him to go and sit in the corner and play with himself, but you know that there's such a thing as the Professional Code of Conduct, and even if there isn't a section under M for masturbation, they'd write one in soon enough especially for you.

You attend to the first problem. "I can't open my work," the student says accusingly. "Sorry," you say sweetly. "Let's see what we can do." The work is an MS Word document that she's saved on a memory stick. You guess it can't be opened because she's created it on her home PC, which has a newer version of the software than the college's, which hasn't been upgraded since 1979. Patiently, you explain how next time she could save it as "text only", and that this will make it fully transferable. "That doesn't help me today, though, does it? What am I going to do now?"

You leave the question hanging and attend to the next problem. "My work won't print." He doesn't say, "And what are you going to do about it, dumbo?" But he doesn't need to. His tone does it for him.

You ask how many times he pressed "print". "A couple," comes the truculent reply. This turns out to mean at least 12. When you get into the print file, you find that his machine has somehow been connected to a printer elsewhere in the building, where no doubt 12 neat copies of his document are now awaiting collection.

You still haven't taught anybody anything, and now three more arms are waving you over. Now you notice that although the last person couldn't access the printer, another muppet clearly could, as now it's churning out pages like paper's going out of fashion. The muppet turns out to have "accidently" sent 50 pages of a website when he only really wanted one.

Despairingly, you look for the onoff button, only to realise that no two printers ever have their power switch in the same place. By the time you locate it - in a totally inaccessible place behind the machine - 20 more sheets of the paper you had to beg for have already been eaten up.

Exasperated, you yank the plug out of the socket. Bad move. The next 15 minutes of the class - the final 15 minutes - are taken up as the printer re-boots, displays a selection of silly questions on its little screen, and spews out - in a torturously slow manner - half a dozen sample pages.

You leave the room as you entered, shaking your head and vowing never to set foot in the place again. The students, meanwhile, can't work out what all the fuss is about. They've cleared their inboxes, "poked" a dozen contacts, and set up a great weekend.

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