From Bush radio to broadband

2nd September 2005 at 01:00
The speed with which technology is being adapted makes Gillian Macdonald wonder what is next in line for our schools

Remember that blacked-out room with the monochrome movie projected onto the screen, explaining childbirth to parents and children? Or that dull black-and-white television documentary on sheep in Iceland? For the pupil in the Scottish classroom of the Sixties, the most exciting thing about school TV was the smell of the accompanying pamphlets - those were the lessons where you could sit back in the dark and switch off.

In 1965, most homes counted themselves lucky to have two television channels - BBC2 first came on air in 1964 - and colour TV, the height of sophistication, didn't arrive in the UK till 1967. School radio was transmitted via the original Bush models, now popular for their retro look.

And Scotland's more advanced pupils piloted the new aural exams for French using great reel-to-reel tapes.

Language labs were virtually unheard of in the Sixties, though modern language teachers were among the most advanced when it came to new technologies. When the new "direct method" became popular in the Seventies, requiring them to speak nothing but the foreign language in class, they had an armoury of slide projectors and tape recorders that had to be set up before each lesson.

God bless the inventor of video, which could just be slotted into the player and switched on. Timetables were released from the dictates of the TV schedulers and life became so much easier for teachers. Or did it? How many schools made the mistake of opting for Betamax instead of VHS? How many teachers struggled with the timers on their machines - or spent valuable minutes in class spooling looking for the right spot on the tape?

From then on, the pace just got faster and faster. If the Betamax format was a mistake, the 12-inch laservision disc was a disaster. Remember the BBC's Domesday project? In 1986, every school in the UK was invited to take photographs of their local area and send them in to be put on to a disc to celebrate the 900th anniversary of the original Domesday Book. The idea was visionary but, even as the 12-inch discs were being launched, there were hushed whispers that Sony was about to announce a smaller, more compact disc - which indeed it did, and its phenomenal success soon signalled the demise of tape.

If TV and video were making advances, they were the old kids on the block.

The real movers were computers, and the Eighties was when they really hit the classrooms. But format was a big issue for them too. Remember the Sinclair Spectrum and its funny black cartridges instead of floppy discs? Or remember the BBC Micro? First there was the BBC A, then the BBC B, then the Junior Archimedes with its new 32-bit technology - each one faster and more sophisticated than the last. A few teachers struggled to come to terms with BASIC programming but LOGO allowed infants to program the first floor robots. Scotland followed a different path from England and Wales when it came to computers. A TES survey in the late Eighties revealed that BBC computers and Research Machines predominated in the south, while Apple won the teachers' favour in the north. Few questioned Apple's superiority when it came to graphics and ease of use. It was certainly simpler for teachers to click on icons on the screen than key in the instructions still required by PCs. Those were the days before PCs adopted Windows and swept the boards in business and home computers.

The TESS was ahead of many newspapers when it came to reporting on the new technologies. But, ironically, the paper itself was still being written on typewriters, edited in biro and posted overnight to the sub-editors and typesetters in London. News International's move to Wapping and the introduction of computer setting was just around the corner.

With the move came the proliferation of supplements and inserts to the paper, full-colour magazines on computers and online technology. The paper has never looked back, nor have schools. Laptops, wireless networks, handheld computers, satellite TV, mobile phones, interactive whiteboards, the internet, the superhighway, broadband technology and - next year - Scotland's own schools intranet. Where will it all end?

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