Hang ups

6th September 1996 at 01:00
A dedicated teacher I know spent the last of his August pay cheque on scratch cards in the hope that a jackpot will save him from the rigours of another school year. Ask him to pin-point precisely why he didn't want to go back and he won't grumble about the kids, the marking, the leak in the roof, class sizes, or the curriculum. The thing that has him chewing the carpet is the prospect of being deluged by endless pages of single-spaced A4.

In the good old days, he'll tell you, if the management team ever needed to communicate with staff they simply talked to them. Today, if they've got something to say, they write lengthy documents. And if they've got nothing to say, the documents are likely to be even longer.

As well as all the paperwork generated by the Government, local authorities and OFSTED, teachers are inundated with internal memoranda, working papers, consultative documents - many of them requesting a written response. Schools are in imminent danger of being buried in bumf.

The trouble is that too many heads and deputies make the elementary mistake in their writing of confusing quality with quantity. It's all the fault of teachers in infants' classes. "Well done!" Miss exclaims. "You have written a lot. You're a very good boy!" From that moment on, the deluded child remains unshakeably convinced that more means better. In the old days, it didn't matter so much, as lethargy acted as a natural curb on the creative urge. By the time children had grown into headteachers or deputies, the only thing they ever wrote was their signatures - and that usually with great reluctance. If they ever felt tempted to rush into print, the school secretary - who would be lumbered with the typing - would bring them back into line with that medley of grimaces and sulks for which they are justly renowned.

Then along came the word processor and ruined it all. Seduced by the ease with which the new technology enables them to convert their thoughts into print, and by an educational culture that values rhetoric more than real achievements, school managers have set about carpeting their schools in acres of prose.

The traditional remedy, of course, has been to file all unwanted communiques, unread, in the rubbish bin. But there is a danger in this: the possibility - however remote - that a document might contain something worth reading. The solution is obvious. If software can help writers to write, there ought to be software that makes it easier for readers to read. There is a program that can do exactly that. You can use it free of charge if you visit BT's site on the World Wide Web.

Netsumm, which is still at an experimental stage in its development, relies on some of the latest research in Artificial Intelligence and Natural Language Processing - the technology which will enable computers to cope with the infinite nuances of the spoken and written word. You simply feed text into Netsumm, and within seconds the software reads it, inwardly digests and reduces it to a quarter of its original length. One click of the mouse, and you can make it even shorter. Common sense dictates that it shouldn't be possible, but I've tried it out on pages from the Internet (for which it was originally designed) and even on previous Hangups, and very reluctantly I have to admit that it, more or less, works.

In order to input the text, it has to be in digital form, so busy teachers will either have to ask for the floppy disc version of the latest epic or scan in the pages and process them using an Optical Character Recognition package. I realise that this could be terribly time consuming. A simpler solution might be to persuade the management team to forsake their word-processors. Better still: buy a winning scratch card.

Netsumm Web address: http:www.labs.bt.cominnovateinformatnetsummindex.htm arnoldevans@easynet.co.uk

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