Arnold Evans solves the teacher shortage crisis in one fell swoop with the help of technology

2nd May 2003 at 01:00
When I worked in an office, a long time ago, the high point in a dreary day was heralded by the distant sound of rattling crockery, unoiled castors, and a wheeze fine-tuned on a life-time of 40-a-day. It was Mrs T and her tea-trolley. Some pupils will empathise with the thrill I felt at the sound - and the tantalising promise it offers of a break from routine. They're in schools equipped with Apple's Wireless Mobile Classroom - a cart purpose-built to accommodate a class set of iBooks, printer and other peripherals. Like Mrs T playing Lady Bountiful with her bourbons, the teacher dishes the iBooks. They have a wireless link, via an AirPort Base Station, to all the resources on the school network. It means that any room or corridor in a school can become an instant computer suite.

Schools hit by the crisis in staff recruitment could easily adapt the cart, by replacing the iBooks with a passenger seat salvaged from any modest family saloon. So any specialist teacher the school still has on the pay-roll - a physicist, for example - could be strapped to the cart and wheeled to classrooms where he'd be greeted by whoops of delight from pupils for whom a specialist teacher is a rarer site than a suite of state-of-the-art computers.

If the cart were fitted with a small motor the physics teacher could even be shared by a cluster of schools. The PE staff would be needed as outriders to ensure the precious cargo wasn't hijacked by predatory rivals.

I've offered Apple my idea for a Teacher-Mobile. They could market it with all the features that have come to typify Apple: a range of cool colours, a breathtakingly stylish design, an eye-watering price tag and a delivery date in the far distant future.The current crisis in teacher recruitment, like every other problem facing education, will eventually be solved by new technology. Virtual Reality (VR) is the obvious killer application and so Mr Charles Clarke, who has pledged to take personal responsibility for ICT in education, should visit the University of Southern California's website (www.usc.edu).

He'll find out how medical students don VR helmets and gloves to receive tuition from Steve. This Pedagogical Agent (PA), a concoction of graphics and artificial intelligence algorithms, behaves more or less like a real person - which is more than can be said for most lecturers I had in college.

Adele, another (PA) at the university, is just as smart as Steve but is two dimensional so students don't need to clamber into the VR clobber. She's happy to materialise on any VDU where she'll give lectures, field questions and check up on student's progress.

A Steve or an Adele would cost a few more eLearning Credits (eLCs) than schools can afford, but it can't be long before prices fall and their clones start appearing on staff lists. Pupils, of course, will appreciate having teachers who will appear at the click of a mouse. And Mr Clarke will see the attraction of teachers who don't expect a monthly pay cheque, won't stray from the national curriculum, don't go down with the 'flu and never embarrass a government minister visiting an NUT conference.

The PA's other great selling point is that it can be embodied in any on-screen persona likely to appeal to pupils. Teachers of the flesh-and-blood variety will never be able to compete with a virtual Eminem or an Atomic Kitten. In fact, if the BBC wanted to add a little pizzazz to its digital curriculum materials, the content could be delivered by PAs modelled on Attenborough, Schama, Tinky Winky and the rest of its big names.

Even without PAs, the BBC's controversial pound;150m investment in the digital curriculum will have a seismic impact on education. Although aimed primarily at schools, the BBC's resources will be free and available to everyone on the Net. So children will be able to learn at home, at a time that suits them and on their own PC.

A recent survey revealed 61 per cent of parents wanted to educate their children at home. The Net will make it easier for them to do so. The fewer children who go to school, the fewer teachers we'll need. That will end the recruitment crisis - another educational problem solved by new technology.

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