Now we are all virtually real

17th January 2003 at 00:00
The news that employers and universities may soon be able to tap into cyber profiles of pupils' schoolwork arouses mixed feelings. The proposal is that files containing drawings, graphics, examples of pupils' work, or recordings of their oral performance, should be accessible online, as part of a national database of students' achievements.

Hmm. Time will tell whether this is a stroke of genius, a democratic means of providing instant computerised access to embryonic brilliance, or one of those slightly embarrassing "don't ring us, we'll ring you" ideas.

On the surface the notion appears no different from external moderators scrutinising pupils' work completed during or at the end of a course. Provided that schools have ensured it is not plagiarised, or created by others, it could be seen as coursework available in electronic form, though I suspect that some pupils' text may well be proof-read and dry-cleaned by a clued up elder.

No one should forget that film and photography are an art form. The presentation of work in cyber form is not as simple a point-and-shoot assignment as it may sound. Will the finished oral or performance piece be coached or uncoached, Take 1 or Take 21, edited or unedited?

Will pupils, technicians, or teachers be responsible for capturing and assembling the online version available for view? If it is the responsibility of teachers then the load will be heavy. There are security and other problems if pupils have to engineer it.

Lighting, camera work, sound, editing, display, can all add to or subtract from the subject. A sculpture can look differently according to how well it is photographed. Give a skilful director the assignment of portraying someone's work and the result will be more impressive than an out-of-focus record produced by some bozo with a duff camera, no editing or composing skill and a twitch. Rich schools will probably sign up David Puttnam.

Even though I love playing with interactive technology I still have an eerie feeling at the thought of assessing cyber versions of humanity rather than the real thing. It may become inescapable, but it seems so bloodless.

There was once a proposal that Ofsted should conduct virtual inspections of schools. No longer would the registered inspector and chums descend with clipboard and stopwatch, trying hard to be jolly and unthreatening. Instead a distant, invisible Mr Gruesome would log on to the school's database from his remote terminal, soundlessly scouring test scores and mission statements.

It reminded me of the haunted house in Los Angeles' Disneyland. At its entrance the three dimensional hologram of a detached head shrieks and groans spookily inside a glass globe. Perhaps a similar cackling cyber ghoul could be placed in the entrance hall of every school receiving a virtual inspection, to remind them they were being sieved from afar. "Heh heh heh. Welcome to special measures, dearie."

League tables, especially of primary schools, are a good example of virtual reality. A school with a mere 10 pupils taking key stage 2 tests does well one year. Wonderful, an excellent place, hundred per cent at level 4 or above, top of the league. Medals, awards, status, honours duly follow. The following cohort of 10 pupils in Year 6 is not so good. Disaster. The school is now sinking, recriminations abound, the poor beggars who missed their level 4 are stigmatised, for they have let the side down.

In reality the school itself is probably no different from the previous year, but the virtual version of it is now a flop.

Soon the whole of our lives could become virtual, rather than real. Fancy a meal out? Don't bother. Restaurants have all closed down, but you can look at a nice photograph of coq au vin on your computer screen and then swallow a few vitamin pills.

I occasionally meet people who have been shredded of their humanity, but the good news is that many teachers and heads have managed to retain it. Without humanity no one will even be able to tell the cyber from the actual. Virtual forms become the reality. Education already is a grand Roger Rabbit film, a surreal mixture of real people and cartoon characters.

Real or cyber?

(1) Two committees are set up to look at the problems of duplication.

(2) The prime minister's education policies are drawn up by a journalist.

(3) A school with one part-time pupil receives a full-scale Ofsted inspection.

(4) Two political parties bombard schools with paperwork and then both say there is too much bureaucracy.

All these are real. You and I, however, are cyber. Aaaargh! We have just completed an illegal operation and will be terminated. Logoff.

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