System failure

16th September 2005 at 01:00
Confessions of an IT co-ordinator

Do you ever suffer from technology fatigue? You know, a here-we-go-again feeling, another box of tricks promising to change everything for the better?

Technology has always had an annoying habit of over-selling itself - but this time it's me that's the problem. Maybe I've read too many promotional leaflets, smelt the heady perfume of too many opened software packages - and then felt that sense of not wanting to admit to the disappointment when the new kit turned out to be only a variation on what we had before.

But I feel bad about such negative thoughts at this time of year. It's a new term, fresh exercise books, empty pages filled with possibility, projects planned and ready to deliver.

Also, to accentuate the positive, the beginning of term means that it's too early for equipment failure. As the techies say: "When nothing is being used, everything is working."

I was still struggling with these autumnal thoughts when I got a call from the headteacher, Mrs Gatsby. She'd put our primary school forward for a project with a think tank carrying out research for the education department. "They want us to test-drive the future," she said, trying to read from a letter that looked as though it had been designed rather than written. Even the typefaces looked like they were wearing fashionable trousers.

"Can you help them? They seem interested in computers and online stuff. And something called personalisation." Mrs Gatsby had been hoping for something more likely to produce flattering free publicity in the local paper. So, feeling unable to change her mind and turn away the think-tankers, she did the next best thing. She gave them my name instead.

"We want to know about personalisation. It's for next month's White Paper on schools," said Rik Randall, lead researcher from the spqr think tank. It's now illegal for any think tank to have an acronym in anything except lower case.

And if you're wondering what exactly a "think tank" is these days, it's an office in Westminster where dapper young Oxbridge graduates try to show off enough to get jobs with the government.

"We want to know how technology can let 30 children in a class have 30 different learning experiences simultaneously, each at their own appropriate level," said Rik, checking emails on his Blackberry between breaths.

"A couple of them might be taking the first year of an undergraduate degree course, while some might still be on the Biff and Chip books," he said.

"That would take a few more staff than we have at present," I said, trying to envisage schools functioning as self-service restaurants for learning.

"Do you think we really need schools at all?" Rik threw in casually. "Aren't they getting in the way of individuals learning in their own way and at their own speed?" "I'm not sure what you mean?" I said, feeling glad for Rik's sake that he hadn't shared his blue-sky with Mrs Gatsby.

"Think of your local school as a corner shop. Why should you always shop there if it only has a limited choice, when you could go to a supermarket where there's a much wider range and better quality?" said Rik.

"Where does the technology come in?" "It's like online banking; you should be able to access services wherever you are, regardless of whether you have a local branch. Why should parents have to use the services only from their local school?" "And schools would be like internet cafes?" I asked, trying to catch hold of the kite strings of his ideas.

"Why do we have to keep thinking of education in terms of institutions? It's individuals we should be talking about."

"And what do you need from us for your research?" I asked, fearing the worst.

"I was wondering if I could put you down for a few quotes. 'Information technology has the power to transform the way that every individual child learns. I've seen it with my own eyes,' says primary school teacher in run-down, hopelessly depressing inner-city area. That kind of thing," he said, pen poised above a beautifully designed notepad.

"Absolutely," I said. "You've taken the words I use each morning."

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