Teacher, fear not the mighty microchip

25th April 1997 at 01:00
Computers might crunch numbers faster than you, says Arnold Evans. But schools will always need a human touch

Headteachers and deputies sometimes think of their schools as the Millennium Falcon, the battered space cruiser from Star Wars. It's a fantasy that enables them to cast themselves in the roles of Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia or Han Solo as they take on the evil forces of ignorance, cutbacks and Chris Woodhead - education's very own Darth Vader.

A harmless enough dream, if it didn't give senior teaching staff such a cock-eyed attitude towards new technology. They naively imagine that if they use computers to share the burden of administration, the machines will behave like loveable C3-PO and cute little R2-D2; that they will be essentially friendly, fun to be with, and happy to perform any task asked of them.


The film that the teaching profession should have been watching is 2001: A Space Odyssey. Indeed, before delegating any of the school's administration to information technology, at least a week of in-service training should be devoted to repeat screenings of this cautionary tale. Teachers could then see that the management of the ill-fated USSS Discovery is supposed to be in the hands of five officers. Two of these aren't up to the job, and the other three are permanently comatose. (Teachers may wish to draw parallels with their own schools.) But it soon becomes obvious that Discovery is really under the control of its on-board computer: the terrifying HAL 9000. This malevolent, powerful beast is the true face of IT: aloof and indifferent, it treats mere mortals as its playthings. It appears to be infallible, but in fact makes horrendous mistakes. And if anyone has the temerity to attempt to override it, HAL takes its own hideous revenge.

There are two simple lessons to be learned from 2001: that computers like to do things their way, and that their way can prove disastrous. Before entrusting the school's admin to IT, teachers should be compelled to write out, 100 times, one of the computer industry's most treasured axioms: "Anyone can make a mistake, but it takes a computer to really cock things up". Nor should they forget the words engraved on the heart of anyone who has ever had any serious dealings with computers: If something can go wrong, it will. And it will do so at a moment when it is most likely to cause maximum mayhem - and invariably on the day when the one person who could sort it out is on a course.

There are plenty of horror stories of schools where hi-tech has gone haywire. Some are undoubtedly true and more than a few - like all the best tales - have been improved in the telling. But their factual accuracy - or otherwise - isn't important. What is significant is the obvious delight teachers have in recounting them.

Teachers see the computer as their natural enemy - which is understandable. IT is a challenge to their raison d'etre: it places a worrying question mark over the whole notion of universal education. What's the point of educating anybody if, in the not too distant future, computers will be on hand to do all the important work?

Teachers - and not only those of a Luddite tendency - can feel under particular threat. When computers do work properly, not only can they do the job as well as their human counterparts, they can often do it better. What's more, computers don't grumble, don't ask awkward questions, don't join unions or take days off with the flu. And they will work for nothing. As every school governor or bursar will certainly have realised, a few state-of-the-art PCs make a smaller dent in the school budget than even a probationary teacher at the very bottom of the pay scale.

Software that can plan the timetable, devise the cover list, take the register, record assessment and generate reports encroaches menacingly on to territory that teachers traditionally identify as their own. But this is only the start. Integrated learning systems and the information superhighway, according to the hype merchants, will render the old-fashioned classroom teacher surplus to requirements. Microchips will replace poor old Mr Chips.

Take such predictions with a pinch of salt. A sophisticated management package might be the bees' knees when it comes to spotting truants, but what it will never be able to do is provide children with a reason for wanting to come to school in the first place. That, of course, is a gargantuan challenge, but one which only teachers - of the flesh-and-blood variety - are ever going to be able to undertake. The Millennium Falcon is going to need all its human crew for a long time yet.

May the force be with you.

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