Hang ups

22nd November 1996 at 00:00
David Shaw MP wants the government to legislate on how teachers dress. His proposed amendment to the new Education Bill would empower governors to insist on a code of dress, but it fails to stipulate exactly what that code should be. He and his backbench cronies would probably like to see teachers in sackcloth and ashes.

Gillian Shephard, the Education Secretary, is more enlightened. She told viewers watching the BBC's On the Record of how impressed she was by the female staff at a school in Norwich who looked "as though they had stepped out of the pages of Vogue". But this, surely, is not the magazine that teachers should be studying if they are to be taken seriously as role models for pupils. They'd be better off with Just Seventeen and Smash Hits. Male staff could then follow the sartorial example set by the Gallagher brothers, and the ladies could do their best to emulate the Spice Girls.

Of course, what teachers really need is a uniform. It should be a mode of dress which would signal quite unequivocally that the profession is aware that there is a revolution in IT which is going to have an incalculable impact on the world that today's school pupils will inherit.

Teachers should be among the first to adopt the new type of clothing which is being developed, not in the fashion houses, but in the computer research labs at several American universities. The boffins are not impressed by the humble PC. As far as they're concerned, even a neat little laptop is bulky, awkward and inconvenient to use. For it to be genuinely personal, the computer needs to become part of the person using it. Then, it can be always with you, always functioning and always accessible.

They admit that their ultimate dream is the routine use of neuroprosthetics - the science of grafting miniature chips and gizmos on to nerve endings so they link directly to the brain. This, however, is still some way off.

In the meantime, the next best thing is to have Rom, Ram, and the rest of the gubbins woven into the clothes you wear. The VDU would be embedded in a pair of glasses, and a keyboard concealed unobtrusively in a pocket. Clothes would also incorporate video cameras, microphones and sensors that would permanently harvest data as you went about your daily round. There will be no problem with re-charging batteries or having to look for a suitable power supply.

"The body produces at least 81 watts at any given time and over one kilowatt maximum. If only a fraction of this can be harnessed without encumbering the user, the wearable computer can run without ever needing an electrical socket," says Thad Straner of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). This might all sound like a sci-fi daydream but research is already at an advanced stage.

Next year, for instance, the Media Lab - the MIT department at the cutting edge of developments in new technology - will be hosting the first International Symposium of Wearable Computers.

But they are doing far more at Media Lab than re-defining what we mean by "smart" clothes. Visitors to Media Lab's Web site will see that they are busily preparing for a future in which every aspect of daily life will be radically affected by IT.

The research being carried out into the educational potential of artificial intelligence and how the next generation of computers will be able to help children to "learn new things in new ways" should be of particular interest to teachers - and even to Mrs Shephard.

Indeed, she might have produced an Education Bill that began to address the real needs of the next century if she'd used her idle moments browsing through the Media Lab's Web site, instead of flicking through the pages of Vogue.

* Media Lab: http:www.media. mit.eduu arnoldevans@easynet.co.uk Caught in the Net will appear next week

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