Sysem failure

3rd January 2003 at 00:00
Confessions of an ICT co-ordinator

As the ICT co-ordinator for our primary school, I've been an annual visitor to the the lofty halls of Olympia and the BETT show and look forward to my annual chance to take the pulse of the future. It may be a trade fair, but I've always thought of it as a kind of ICT fairground, ablaze with flashing lights and eye-catching gimmicks as the exhibitors try to persuade the curious punters to try out their rides.

You can see great ideas that are on a fast-forward roller-coaster or find ghost trains flogging technology that died years ago. And there are merry-go-rounds where you feel as though you've heard all the promises before.

Every year, the great tribes of educational technology gather to enjoy all the fun of the fair. You can stand on the balcony and spot them in action. There are the Gadget Tappers, who spend every spare moment pecking away at some handheld device. Bustling past them are the Jackdaws, who stuff carrier bags to bursting point as they collect their bodyweight in brochures, free pens and mousemats.

Meanwhile, the exhibitors are cornered by the Anoraks who know more about computers than is good for anyone. When this sub-group gathers, there are usually more beards than at a Taliban reunion.

On the day when the education minister gives the usual flannel about the ICT revolution, you see the smart suits of the Acronym Stanleys, the educational technology professionals, working in government agencies. Perch in the Quartier Styrofoam (aka Olympia's cafe) and you can easily spot an Acronym Stanley. They have a 15-point management strategy for drinking tea but, because of technical reasons, the cup might not quite make it to their lips.

Then there are people like me - non-techies who want to keep up with what's on offer and look rather sheepish as we try to talk the talk with the sales teams.

Like most visitors, I've never actually bought anything at the BETT show. It's not just a matter of cost, it's also a question of timing. I can't buy the just-released stuff on show while the equipment we have at school is only a couple of years old. And by the time it's due to be replaced, the whole caravan of technology will have moved on somewhere else.

The computer industry might advance at the speed of a Steve McQueen car chase, but my budget stubbornly remains Morris Traveller. Which is to say, we'll get there in the end, but it won't be any time soon.

For instance, this year I want to take a good look at the tablet PCs, which you can operate with a stylus as well as a keyboard. I like the idea of something you can carry around which has the convenience of scribbling on paper. And I'd like to hear more about wireless networks - I've always said technology will have arrived when I can work outside and send emails from a laptop without any need for plugs or leads. I know this will be old hat to the buffs but, to me, it would be a success story.

This brings me on to another big issue that always occurs when I trawl the BETT show. How do I know which of these things really works? It might sound like a daft question, but anyone who has dabbled with computers will have come across hardware and software that never really worked. In a classroom, there isn't scope for spending hours under the bonnet with the manual open.

It's a difficult balancing act. While schools want a degree of stability, the ICT industry has to keep changing products to keep the tills ringing. They need to make your old stuff obsolete and they don't want you to keep using that great bit of Acorn software from the last century.

So if you're at the BETT show, you might see me looking longingly at all the toys I can't afford, and wondering which ride to try next. Let me know if you see anything useful, or even entertainingly useless.

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