Log off and get a life

3rd January 2003 at 00:00
Rosemary Westwell says a virtual education is no substitute for the real thing

Technology can provide infinite sources of fascinating information to inspire every student, parent, teacher, education consultant and politician. Hand-held computers; every child with a laptop; white boards; school networks; it all sounds grand.

But isn't this just a bit too fanciful? Are computers really as inspirational as they're cracked up to be?

I say not. It's about time the status of the real world and real situations was proclaimed. Technology provides nothing more than useful tools, suitable for only some applications - applications chosen by human beings who possess something computers and new technological fads lack - common sense.

Recently I went into a primary school as a visitor. The class was full of busy children who were given a few moments to continue their learning activity by choosing their materials. The (sole) computer for the class was unattended.

Thinking the children had forgotten it was there, I pretended to learn to spell using its lively, colourful and interesting program. This applied psychology usually works well - once someone has something interesting, the children want to take over. I offered a passing child a chance to participate. "Huh," she muttered. "Boring." She immediately sat next to her classmate and, using the cards she had just collected from the activity table, they "played" teachers - teaching each other words they had recently learned to spell.

Two weeks ago I was told about a recently inspected secondary school - now hailed as a shining example to similar schools. But its staff have been complaining since September that they cannot access the internet because the newly appointed computer expert has not quite worked out how to get the school's network functioning.

Surely the possibility of lengthy power cuts, like those that took place a couple of months ago following violent storms - and situations such as the above - should be taken on board to stem some of the hype that permeates present edu-speak.

I'd like to know:

* How many schools can't afford enough computers for their students?

* How many can't afford to maintain the computers they have?

* How many have been unable to interview prospective "computer experts" thoroughly enough to know if the candidate will really be able to cope with the school's present system?

It is time to end the constant pie-in-the-sky flannel about the wonderful world of technology that will transform our schools. No amount of rhetoric will disguise the fact that there are power cuts from time to time, batteries are not always fully charged, expensive software can contain time-consuming bugs and pupils are not always positively excited about the joys of using the computer.

Up with pupil-teacher interaction, down with computers.

Rosemary Westwell is an independent education consultant. She lives in Ely

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