The reliability of a piece of technology is in inverse proportion to the size and importance of the audience watching you use it

14th January 2005 at 00:00
This morning, I'm going to talk to you about achievable targets. This morning, I'm going to talk to you about achievable targets.

It won't have escaped your notice that I said that twice. Why? Because I'm doing a PowerPoint presentation.

I saw my first PowerPoint presentation some years ago, when the LEA invited its headteachers to discuss the latest initiative. Instead of the ubiquitous overhead projector and transparencies, a large electronic whiteboard hung impressively on the wall, connected to a laptop and a device that looked like a slide projector. For a moment I wondered if we were about to enjoy the chief inspector and his wife on Brighton beach in glorious widescreen, but no, this was a talk about setting achievable targets. Well, it would be, wouldn't it? But this was more entertaining than the average LEA meeting.

Each time the speaker made what he thought was an important point, he'd push a button and the sentence would animate its letters across the whiteboard and then underline itself. Was this new whizzy presentation of wise words intended for ageing heads who tend to nod off as soon as somebody other than themselves starts talking? No, it was simply a new piece of flashy technology, and it was there to impress. After the talk, I investigated the cost. For the same price, I could have bought 212 guitars for my school. Or 72 overhead projectors. Still, at least it didn't go wrong.

Today's laptops and software programs can do even more wondrous things, but, because they're more complicated, they foul up more often. I remember the sales rep who wanted to earn our custom for the New Opportunities Fund training scheme. He opened his laptop and had barely got two minutes into his demo before a failing battery caused the machine to stumble to a halt.

He was certain he had a spare battery with him, but after rummaging through his case, his pockets, and every inch of his BMW, he realised he'd lost the sale.

Of course, Sod's law states that the reliability of a piece of technology is in inverse proportion to the size and importance of the audience watching you use it, and the law was certainly in operation on a recent course I attended. Groups of heads were talking about raising achievement, and all the groups except two were using PowerPoint presentations, though I'm certain they weren't any better for it; they just looked prettier.

Halfway through the afternoon, one of the laptops crashed, and the embarrassed female head stared at it in bewilderment. Male technophiles quickly leapt to her rescue, and for 10 minutes bodies were bent over the apparatus while plugs were pushed and pulled, cables substituted and buttons pressed. Confronted from my front row seat by a line of bums, I peered up at the screen, which, almost gleefully I felt, kept displaying those annoying little Windows messages saying it couldn't make any sense of the input. I felt enormous sympathy for the woman. And I bet she does her next presentation with a piece of paper.

The technophiles won the day, of course. One head proudly gave a PowerPoint presentation that amounted to a set of visual fireworks. Animated characters jumped and jiggled on the screen, words and sentences exploded in dazzling colour. It was so eye-popping I haven't a clue what it was actually about.

It must have taken days to prepare. I couldn't help wondering whether his time might have been more profitably spent listening to children read.

Mike Kent is head of Comber Grove primary, London borough of Southwark.


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