System failure

10th September 2004 at 01:00
I've been facing some uncomfortable truths in the few days before the start of the new term.

These particular skeletons have been taken out of the back of the store cupboard, where for the past seven years I've been stashing equipment and software that I couldn't get to work.

The caretaker, in a spate of pre-season enthusiasm, had decided to deep-clean some storage areas that haven't been touched since the days when new technology was a wireless that could pick up Radio Luxembourg.

This meant unlocking my own private stockpile of computer failure. Of course, I could have thrown away these cantankerous printers and CD-Roms that never did anything but flash up error messages. But I felt guilty about chucking something that still smelled of its factory wrapping, so instead I consigned it to the storage cupboard. This was only meant to be a temporary reprieve - like a self-assembly condemned cell - but the great egg-timer of life moves quickly and all these old machines were still lurking there this summer.

This collection of dead plastic is a monument to how things don't work the way they should - or how kit has been delivered without any training or support.

There's a piece of software that was meant to be for video editing, circa 1999, but which never managed to make any kind of useful communication with either computer, camera or humans. There was a CD-Rom for teaching English which never seemed to be able to speak English to anyone who tried to use it.

There were scanners: one worked, one didn't - no apparent difference in how we set them up. And there were monitors that had started playing up and which now looked like museum pieces, odd-shaped and clunky-looking.

If the whole network went down, we'd call in the techies. But it's not so easy to call someone in because a screen is flickering or because a piece of history software always freezes during the quiz about the Romans. So the temptation is to put up with it until eventually the big black hole of the store cupboard beckons. Does everyone involved in school ICT have similar stashes? I bet if enough truth serum were to be administered, primary schools across the country would admit to huge amounts of unused and abandoned technology.

What makes it more of a dark secret is that this duff kit was often bought from a stretched resources budget or using PTA cash or some photo-opportunity grant - and by then it was difficult to admit that it was about as useful as a house-brick with a plug on the back.

So we stick stuff in the store cupboard until we get some more free time to try again. And that time never comes. Instead, that malfunctioning CD-Rom gets hidden by a glossily packaged box of disks (the smaller the disks, the bigger the box) which would only work with software that you had to download from a website in Arizona.

I might even get a heritage grant for some of the items. There's a printer for an old Acorn computer, a pre-colour monitor and a handheld from the local authority with a screen the size of a stamp. I've got hard disks littered with the abandoned remains of half-installed software, like mole-hills scattered across a lawn.

I've even got an example from the "modems for cupboards" scheme in which, during a frenzy of superhighway ambition, schools were issued with computer modems, but without any support for using them.

For all these pieces of equipment, which filled my cupboard like abandoned space debris, the problem was that when we wanted to "plug and play", they wanted a team of technicians and a system entirely re-configured to fit in with them. Compatibility for them was a one-way street - and we were driving up the wrong way.

So have things improved? Computers and networks have become more reliable, but there are still plenty of jokers in the pack. I heard about a colleague recently who experimented with wireless connections and found that they didn't work. To get any results, he'd need to knock down a couple of walls or put all the computers about a yard away from the wireless point. Which means it's back to users being compatible with the stuff they're buying.

There's a chain of shops that uses the slogan "never knowingly undersold", but computers for years have taken the "always oversold" position, from which they give the impression that everything will be easy, efficient and instant.

I've emptied a cupboard that tells a different story.

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