On the line;Miscellany

11th June 1999 at 01:00
Get out and about this holiday, urges Niel McLean - it'll change the way you see ICT

Summer holidays are important for education. How else would teachers have found the time to develop their initial IT skills, other than on a computer borrowed from school. I'm sure that the history of IT in schools could be tracked through these self-study sessions: from initial fumblings with a BBC computer wired up to a family television to more recent experiments with email using the domestic telephone line.

I remember the simple joy of trying to explain to baffled onlookers that my getting a badly drawn clock to appear on screen was far more significant than that evening's episode of Miami Vice.

This summer I recommended a change. We have a duty to the nation to demonstrate that prolonged exposure to information and communications technology (ICT)has not turned us into uncultured morons, and that the computer isn't the modern equivalent of the potting shed so beloved of old situation comedies, where the man of the house went to hide from the issues of the day, content to be watering his seedlings and sorting his wing nuts. But how can self-confessed ICT addicts feed their habits without appearing to be sad obsessives with no friends?

Well, there are a few solutions. In an effort to confound the critics, I'm going to read some of the classics which defeated me in the past. Surely, anyone who has struggled through a computer manual will skip through Finnegan's Wake. It is also surprising how many novels of the past anticipate technological issues of the present. I've used Mary Shelly's Frankenstein to illustrate some key concepts. the good doctor understood about assembling hardware, but the software let him down.

This is a startlingly modern idea. It doesn't apply to mechanical systems. If you assemble the parts of a clock, you have a working clock. Assemble an ICT system and it's still only so much tin and silicon without the software. Is there a message here?

I'd also recommend dipping into Ambrose Bierce's Devil's Dictionary, if only for his definition of a piano as being "operated by depressing the keys of the machine and the spirits of the audience". Ever prepared a PowerPoint presentation? Then you'll know exactly what he means.

But I'm also going to get out more. I've bookmarked art gallery and museum sites around the word. Anyone who thinks a digital representation of a painting does anything more than hint at the original would probably describe the Grand Canyon as a hole in the ground. Anyone who attended either the recent Monet or Jackson Pollock exhibitions in London will have experienced the delight of being absorbed in a static image, where the interaction is in the mind, rather than the finger and mouse.

When I look at the history file on my Internet browser it's a salutary experience to realise how much information has passed in front of my eyes without me being able to recall any. Perhaps we all need to practise seeing rather than looking, reading rather than skimming and engaging with an argument instead of grazing for information. How about a new Internet browser, one aimed at education, which asks: "Hold on a minute, you've only been on this page for four seconds, are you really sure you want to jump to that site on Norwegian sardine tin labels?" I'll also be in the queue for the new Star Wars movie. George Lucas redefined the relationship between films and technology with the first of the series and Hollywood, for better or worse, has never looked back. Now all films, even those without spectacular effects, are measured against the hi-tech blockbuster.

And then there's Notting Hill, which if the previews are to be believed, seems to be an even more sophisticated exercise in virtual reality, unless things really have changed that much since I worked in the area.

Lastly, I aim to borrow a friend's children as camouflage so I can visit some theme parks. My last visit to Legoland was fascinating (see page 14 for Legoland Windsor feature). I spent my childhood summers in Blackpool, where my father conducted the orchestra for shows. Mornings were spent with my brother in the amusement arcades, looking out for half-awake holiday makers who would leave the machines ready to pay out.

On reflection, a day spent building robots, admiring the constructions and enjoying the rides seems a far more edifying experience. But then, that's the great thing about being in education, you can relive your childhood, knowing that, this time, you're doing the things that are good for you.

Niel McLean is head of the schools directorate at the British Educational Communications and Technology Agency

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