The nuts and bolts of new technology

6th December 1996 at 00:00
Three pieces of advice are regularly thrown at us. Education and business need to work better together. Don't mix business and pleasure. Learning should be fun. Is it any wonder we get muddled? I am perhaps particularly confused because my business is education, and I straddle the two sectors.

This week two things that relate to the education-business nexus in the Ross and Cromarty area have helped me focus. On a general front, I have been invited to contribute to the local Education and Business Partnership, or EBP, and am reading up as fast as I can. I hope I am not asked to choose which side of the partnership I represent, because that would be very difficult. But I would be interested in forging more and better links between education and business staff, strategists and learners. I will let you know how I get on.

Later in the week, a local careers officer came round to ask me lots of questions about my feelings, as a potential employer, about IT in education. We spoke about the difficulties in defining IT. He had me placed firmly in the IT sector, whereas I can't say I am sure what that is. It could mean I work with computery things, maybe designing the guts of an automatic washing machine (and for those of you who know little about me, I can assure you I only just know where to put in the powder).

It (or should that be IT?) could be that I am a teacher of desktop publishing, and I am not. Or it could be that IT encompasses everything from designing, building or using anything with a chip in it somewhere? Can you imagine the industrial equivalent? Someone involved in the nuts and bolts sector? No: the terminology just isn't clear enough any more.

Once we got over the semantics, he enquired what formal qualifications I would be looking for were I to employ someone in my business, and I could think of none. Interestingly, this has been the regular response of IT businesses in the Ross and Cromarty area, so it can't be related to my usual iconoclastic approach to SVQs and degrees. When he asked what characteristics I would be looking for in an employee, my first response was: an enthusiasm to learn. After he had gone, I thought about it all in more depth, and realised that my business could benefit from people who understood the concepts of computers, the philosophy of computers, if you like. People who understand not the wires and boxes but the underlying ethos of a machine, and can move forward in tune with it.

If I am beginning to sound a bit born again, just consider those remarks that Umberto Eco made a while back about the similarities between operating systems and religions. He hypothesised that Macintosh users are like Catholics, surrounded by icons and advice on how everyone can reach salvation, and that Dos is Protestant. Dos users need to interpret the system themselves, a long way from the baroque community of revellers. Windows, he suggests, represents the Anglican-style schism - big ceremonies in cathedrals. And Windows 95 does not yet warrant an eco-mention. My own humble suggestion is that we could do with a Sophie's World for potential computer employees.

And then the careers officer wanted to know if I had any opinions about schools and the problems they need to overcome in this area? Does Rose Kennedy have a black dress, as the local pupils here would say? One: schools are underresourced. We cannot expect greater things from our schools, their staff or their pupils until we provide them with kit and infrastructure. Two: we need more staff development. Given the tremendous strain that education professionals are under generally, to also hit them with IT is to hit them hard and where it hurts. The nation needs to support those staff. And third: if we want to meet the requirements of employers, and they are unable to identify any useful qualification for potential employees, we need to rethink and redevelop the qualifications on offer.

But are you prepared to say this publicly, asked the careers officer. So I thought I should.

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