Confessions of an IT co-ordinator

5th November 2004 at 00:00
Even though I might often be tempted to be cynical, deep down I think I'm an idealist.

And before I go any further with such lofty claims, let me introduce another entirely different concept. Laptop batteries. Just leave that thought there for a moment. You know what I'm talking about. Those work-shy backstabbers that lurk inside your computer.

But don't think about those batteries yet. Just keep them there in the back pocket of your imagination, like a barrister holding a crucial, but so far undisclosed, piece of evidence.

I know idealism is not a fashionable approach to modern life, but I think in education there's still a higher than average sprinkling of people who really believe that they are working for something more than a pay packet.

Maybe that's also why there are so many disappointed and frustrated people in education.

There's also a particular strain of idealism among the ICT crowd. It's not so much that they're looking for the promised land, it's more that they're looking for the perfect configuration, where everything works better than ever before.

Each upgrade, each new piece of equipment is another step towards the perfect set-up. It's like looking for the missing pieces that will finally make up the complete jigsaw.

If we weren't bothered about making things better, we might say that we've got everything we need from technology. But instead we push forward, restlessly experimenting with new ideas and getting things wrong. This year, in our primary school, all the classrooms have interactive whiteboards, which would have been unimaginable a few years ago.

My own idea of the complete jigsaw is where the technology is so easy to use that you don't even know you're using it. Like this newspaper; you're reading the page, not thinking about the printing process.

And what I've always thought about as my computer ideal would be to be able to work outside in the fresh air, freed physically and mentally from the constraints of the classroom and staffroom walls, in contact through emails and the internet, but on my own terms.

At this point, that thought you're holding starts to come back into view, like a torpedo heading towards us under the water.

Laptops should be the smart-looking vehicle that takes me to this destination. With wireless - and I must admit to not having done more than play with this so far - it should be possible to work away from the shackles of plugs and phone lines.

But it's the most basic part of the equation that lets me down every time.

Batteries have been around forever, but they're the weakest link in the laptop. And what is going on?

My laptop claims to get more than five hours of life from the battery. I know you're all sniggering at the idea of this, saying you'll get two hours if you're lucky. And, indeed, I used to get two hours if I was lucky, but now it nosedives after about 30 minutes.

So if I'm going to write on the train on the way to a meeting, or I'm simply moving away from my desk, the battery barely lasts longer than the first sentence. And it is so infuriating. What's the point of a laptop if you can only use it a yard away from a plug?

It's as if we have these parallel worlds, between the ideal of life-improving technology and the real-life trapdoor of a battery that has its own sense of comic timing. "I'll email it straight back to you. Damn, battery's going, hold on. I'll just try to send it... too late."

And we put up with it. If you bought a DVD and it only ran for half the film you'd take it back and say it was broken. A laptop battery does the same thing and we shrug our shoulders and accept it.

Rather than accepting that battery life is about as long as a mayfly's memoirs, we end up reading websites with quack advice about getting more life out of our batteries. They tell us to charge up the battery during a full moon or wearing a tinfoil suit, rather than addressing the basic failing of the technology.

If it says five hours battery life on the box, it should last five hours, and not start flashing warning signs that it's going to quit in a few minutes and leave you holding a grand's worth of dead plastic.

It's not easy being an idealist when your batteries keep cutting out.

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