System failure

7th November 2003 at 00:00
When I was at secondary school, the strangest classroom was the one we used for French lessons. It had been built as a language laboratory - or language lab, as it was always known. But by the time we were using it in the late 1970s, maybe only a decade or so after it opened, none of the audio equipment was working and we used it like any other classroom.

It was like learning in some kind of disused mission control centre for a Sixties moonshot, with a control panel of broken switches and dusty headphones stowed away inside the desks.

When you think about the title - "language laboratory" - you can see that these were built with high ambitions, using state-of-the-art technology to make language learning more scientific, applying the latest technical advances so that individual pupils could learn at their own pace. Sounds familiar?

Looking around the new equipment in my primary school, I can't help but wonder sometimes how our plans will fare in the future, and what good intentions will be gathering dust.

Those hi-tech French teachers would have been so disappointed to see how quickly their vision of a brave new world had withered away, but I can see how it happened. For a few years, everyone would have been very keen and everything would have worked. If a couple of the headphones were broken, then you could shuffle the class around and make sure that everyone had a turn. An enthusiastic head of department might make sure that switches got repaired, but after a while, if there were too many call-outs, you can imagine the head getting twitchy about the expense and the hassle.

Then maybe there was a change of staff. And as we know from using ICT in our day, different teachers have different levels of ability with any kind of technology, and some muddle along without ever really grasping the basics.

You can imagine a new teacher struggling with getting all the equipment to work, feeling constricted by their own lack of confidence, and maybe they might have thought that it would be easier for a few weeks to put away the tapes and the recording equipment and to use the desks as just somewhere to rest the old-fashioned text books.

You can imagine that eventually the language lab would have seemed like more of a problem than a solution. And something else by then would have become more fashionable and would be attracting the money and the attention.

I was thinking about this when we received our new interactive whiteboard this term, the first in the school. The head teacher, Mrs Gatsby, ushered the big brown boxes into the school gates as if they were visiting dignitaries, muttering something about getting the local paper in once "it's tuned in".

I know she likes the idea of having an interactive whiteboard, I just wonder sometimes whether she has any idea what it is.

It's not only our school where there are questions about how ICT equipment is maintained and kept integrated into lessons. There was a huge international report last month from the Paris-based research unit, the Organisation for European Charts and Diagrams which found that one of the biggest questions for schools across Europe was how to use the equipment that had been installed.

The computers had all been plugged in, but the survey found that too many teachers remained suspicious about the technology. Teachers were saying they didn't have time to find out how to use the software that had been given to them.

Presenting the report, "expert" Dr Fischer-Technik said that it was a very unusual situation, where there had been investment in equipment and resistance from those it was meant to benefit. "Can you imagine a business which had paid to modernise its equipment and then it let its staff carry on as if nothing had changed?"

Indeed, can you imagine?

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