Move over, the machines are here

9th January 2004 at 00:00
Have you noticed that by placing a student of any year in front of a PC you can totally transform their behaviour? This simple observation came to me only recently, and I certainly haven't come across any learned education studies that refer to it.

As a supply teacher working in a host of different schools with every behaviour type, the prospect of an IT slot now comes as something of a relief. The most unruly pupil becomes the most engrossed; the most disruptive the most industrious. I have yet to see the same response in any textbook, chalk-and-talk or handout-orientated lesson.

I think we have much to learn from this. In all the class debates I've chaired arguing the pros and cons of 24-hour "homeschool" via PC, students have invariably given the idea the thumbs-down, saying they'd miss their mates most of all, then the help of a good teacher (usually in that order).

I'm not so sure. Once the start-of-lesson teething problems have been sorted (chatline servers, fanzine and game websites disconnected) they quickly get down to work in an almost frightening state of beguiled autonomy, often racing ahead of the lesson plan in near silence, driven by the prospect of outdoing the computer. They are keen to work through break times, and best buddies shut out their classtime partners in crime in favour of deeper dialogue with their terminals.

This bothers me. It gets lonely behind that desk knowing that the toolbar is more help than me. For all our gripes about having to chide Janet and chastise John every five minutes, you kind of miss it when it's removed.

You become an unteacher. Then I recall those ominous successes they had in the United States when kids were dragooned into homeschool pilot schemes and school PCs were installed in their bedrooms with curriculum interactive software. Outcome: results soared, the kids loved it and the authorities saved millions in staff salaries and building costs.

A couple of weeks ago I strode over to congratulate one of my under-achievers for completing two modules in a lesson which had only allowed for one. Looking distractedly up from her screen she replied with genuine surprise, "What... you still here?" I sought solace in a cup of tea in the staffroom, which the new automated drinks machine was only too happy to supply.

If this is the way we're going, we can look forward to many a hermetically sealed lesson. We're mere megabytes away from developing self-timetabling interactive Smartboards complete with everything from attendance register, time checks, bell rings, lesson plans and mark schemes to school announcements, dinner rota and dessert menu.

And we're out of a job.

Martin Blackburn is a supply teacher and part-time lecturer in English at Wakefield and Pontefract colleges

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