Learn some IT etiquette

6th April 2012 at 01:00

There's a theory going around that the human brain has an infinite capacity for growth. Some luminaries would have us believe that the brain is an expandable suitcase with a nifty side zip that opens up to give you space for an extra pair of flip-flops and an additional foreign language. But I'm not entirely convinced. It strikes me that the only way adults can squash new ideas into their already bulging cases is by removing half their toiletries and dumping their emergency socks.

Look at the way we've adapted to digital technology. It speeds up communications but at the cost of common sense. I was recently invited to be a guest panellist on a web chat which required me to master some new IT skills. I prided myself on my ability to learn a few new tricks. "Get me," I thought, as I smoothly uploaded my avatar and seamlessly posted responses, oblivious to the chicken pie I'd left smouldering in the oven. I may have improved my ICT skills, but I'd started cooking like a man.

The main thing we sacrifice when we use digital technologies is our ability to communicate empathetically with others. Emails are the biggest problem in schools and leaders have yet to introduce effective policies to restrict their use. Catholic schools like mine are too busy checking that we're all still eating end-of-the-week fish to catch on to "No Email Fridays".

Most school managers are happy to adopt that 1970s Martini slogan: "any time, any place, anywhere" for their email practice, which may be fine for an aperitif but is less so for a 12-tab spreadsheet with all the missing end-of-year targets helpfully highlighted in blue. Emails are also overly aggressive and messages sent from above either reprimand or command. A typical email from management is likely to contain abrupt reminders about examination entries or demands that worksheets for absentee pupils are delivered to the head of year by the end of morning break.

What's interesting is that people are prepared to make demands by email that they wouldn't dare make face-to-face. Psychologists point out that this bullying by email is a fairly common phenomenon. Seemingly, emails are like alcohol: they reduce inhibitions, diminish social responsibility and turn decent, hard-working people into egotistical twats; which is why we regularly receive combative emails from those who, in real life, couldn't say "Boo" to a goose if it was lying on a bed of roasties with an orange up its bum.

And because emailing is asynchronous, it's very easy to give offence. Without the facilitating nuances of voice, face or gesture, the exchange quickly turns into a fiery war of words. A common example in schools is when the all-staff email "Will the person who owns the silver Ford Mondeo please move their car" is mistakenly received as "you're a prick who can't park and I've shagged your wife" by the owner of said saloon. Our students long ago recognised the inherent dangers of digital communication. They regularly rely on the kindness of emoticons to avoid giving offence; would that their teachers were as wise.

When conversation deteriorates, catastrophe ensues. It's no coincidence that Shakespeare's tragedies are marked by soliloquies and the protagonist's isolation whereas his comedies are bristling with social repartee. It may be cost-effective to communicate by email, but it pays to remember that if we want a happy ending it's better that we talk.

Anne Thrope (Ms) is a secondary teacher in the north of England. @AnnethropeMs.

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