System failure

10th March 2006 at 00:00
Confessions of an IT co-ordinator

There used to be two ways children found help with their homework - they either asked their parents or visited the public library. But forget about libraries. They used to be full of things called books: now they seem to specialise in knackered videos and racks of out-of-date magazines. And those are the ones that haven't been redeveloped as apartments.

So now they're just left with the parents. Well, not quite. What we've been wrestling with at our school is a new part of the homework equation.

Parents plus the internet.

This week I collected the homework from a project about the Victorians. The idea was to gather a few ideas about the contrasts between life upstairs and downstairs.

There was some hi-tech homework handed in. It doesn't smell of hard work; it smells of printer cartridges, pages of printed-out pictures and text, cut and pasted from websites. It could really be the children's work, because they can use Google just like the rest of us - but, then again, it might not.

I don't want to discourage this kind of ICT effort. But the trouble is, I'm not sure whose efforts we're looking at. Is it the child, the parent or the moonlighting teacher who wrote the materials on the website, now being recycled as a child's homework, probably under the supervision of Mr and Mrs We've Got Broadband?

In a primary school there's no point getting precious about plagiarism. But it does raise some tricky questions. If we ask them to "find out" about something, what do we say if they just tap in "Victorians", "workhouse" and "Florence Nightingale" and then Control-P the results? Is this wrong? After all, we can't un-invent the search engine and spellchecker.

After school yesterday I was pondering just such an ethical and pedagogical dilemma - well, in fact, I was playing that online game where you see how far you can hit the penguin - but I was sort of thinking about the ethical dilemmas, when I heard a surreptitious knock on the door.

It was the Buff, the school's resident tech know-all, holding a disc in his hand. He was waving it at me, like he was taunt- ing a pauper with a pound;50 note. We crept round to his classroom, and then I watched as he loaded the disc - the Buff treating it as if it were a holy treasure. It was like in Harry Potter when some kid claims to have the Book of All Knowledge.

"Everything is on this little disc," said the Buff.

He clicked open a file. "This is for inspectors. They can download a light-touch report for a coasting school in 30 seconds. Just change the variables from a menu, and it's job done.

"And that's just for starters. We're not in the stone age any more, so why bother carving out your own reports. Every type of kid from gifted to gobshite is on here, just tap in the appropriate keyword."

Buff showed me lesson plans for every subject and topic, music files, home-school agreements, assemblies, sick notes, job applications, plausible stress symptoms, leaving speeches, references, letters to parents, apologies to governors - all loaded and ready on the one disc.

"You could download an entire career from this and still have room on your hard drive for that game where you have to see how far you can hit the penguin," he said, treating me to the messianic stare of a man looking confidently into the future.

"But wouldn't that be cheating?" I asked. "Wouldn't it just be copying."

"No," the Buff replied. "If I hear a really funny joke and I repeat it to you, that's copying, too. Is it cheating? Of course not. It's not cheating, it's teaching. Copying is learning."

"It doesn't sound right," I said.

"Where did you get the penguin game?"

"I copied it from the email from the training day."

"So you didn't re-draw all the animations yourself?"

"Of course not," I said. "How would I have time?"

"If you want to control time, all you need are two key combinations," said the Buff. "Control-C and Control-V."

The Buff had managed to re-write the laws of time. Or maybe he had just copied them from somewhere.

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