Service solely by machine won't wash;FE Focus;Comment;Opinion

29th May 1998 at 01:00
LET us take a journey back in time. Back to the very earliest days of FE. We are not talking pre-incorporation here. More like pre-history.

Our classroom is a cave (no change there then, you might think). And our lecturer - let us call him Ig - is a happy man. He has just made a discovery which he thinks will improve his teaching of the fleet-footed youths who comprise his NVQ 1 class in antelope hunting.

He is demonstrating his find to another man - his principal, we might deduce, from his double-breasted bearskin with a faint chalk stripe. Let us call him Ug.

"Look," says Ig, pointing to a crude drawing he has made on the cave wall of an antelope being pursued by three stiff-looking figures clutching spears.

"It is good," says Ug. "We will call it AVA. It will revolutionise classroom practices. It will make you a better teacher. It will save you timeI" That is what Ug says. What he is thinking is that maybe this new fangled "cave painting" will enable Ug to teach his apprentice hunters more quickly; allowing him to sack Ig's colleague, Eg, and close one wing of the cave.

Of course, such discoveries didn't end with Ig, Ug and Eg. Rather, it was where it all began: technical advances that were set to transform teaching as we know it. Can we not imagine similar scenes (with appropriate costume changes) for all of the great leaps forward that have followed the book; the slate; the magic lantern; the wireless set; the cathode ray tube; the overhead projector; the video recorder.

Each time the ante, in the mouth of the enthusiasts, will have been upped a little from the time before. And each time, too, there will have been the Ugs of this world wondering if this finally could bring about the death of the teacher.

Today, it is the turn of the computer to have exaggerated claims made for its impact on teaching and learning. Generally, it should be noted, by people who know little about either. Somehow, just the mention of the word can turn strong minds to mush. And a politician has only to use the word "Internet" in the same sentence as "education" to think he or she has said something really profound.

The computer, we are told, will transform education as we know it. It won't. It will, allegedly, cut bureaucracy and liberate the teacher from the time-consuming drudgery of paperwork. It can't. Well, it could. But it won't be allowed to. That's the pity of it. Because the only way to achieve those things is to set out specifically to do them. Not expect a machine to do it for you.

The most recent example of this thinking comes not from FE but the schools sector, where teachers have been told that the Government is to spend pound;23 million on new lap-top computers for them. David Blunkett and Kim Howells have already given us the mantra: how this will cut paperwork, reduce the bureaucratic burdens and, in New Labour-speak, "drive up standards".

But will it? For a start, there are nearly 500,000 teachers and only 10,000 computers to go round. And there is also the little matter of just who will be required to do what with these new machines.

If the experience of FE is anything to go by, the chances of any positive benefit for the teacher are pretty remote. More likely, it'll end up with fewer and fewer people being required to do more and more work. Most colleges are pretty well provided for in IT terms compared with most schools. But do we have more time for our teaching? Are we better able than before to "drive up standards"? Are we happier, healthier, more secure in our work?

If only. This not the fault of the computer. It is a wonderful tool - just as the book, the radio and the VCR have proved to be. But it is a tool, and we should recognise the fact rather than blindly hailing it as the great liberator. That will only happen - the "liberation" that is - when those who have it in their gift are prepared to organise matters so as to allow it to happen.

And the omens are not good. Consider this from Ken Ruddiman, principal of the vast amalgam of South Yorkshire FE now known as Sheffield College, writing in The Guardian a month or two back about his vision of the future of education:

"While learning programmes will still be designed by teachers and information handling planned in advance, subject specialisms will, increasingly, he delivered by machines and serviced by technicians and instructors. The wrap-around service of guidance, encouragement and support will be provided by a generic workforce on different rates of pay from teachers and probably employed on a casual basis."

Or, as Ug would have more succinctly put it, sack Eg and bring in Og on half his pay!

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