I was recently lucky enough to see Glenn Close reprise the role of Norma Desmond in the musical adaptation of Billy Wilder’s film Sunset Boulevard. The show tells the story of an ageing superstar of the silent film era, who lacks the skills to make the transition into “talkies” and becomes a recluse in her Hollywood mansion, losing the plot in spectacular fashion.
One of the most famous exchanges comes when a writer recognises her. He blurts out: “You used to be in silent pictures, you used to be big.” Insulted and defiant, she hisses: “I am big. It’s the pictures that got small.”
It’s a tale based on the real experiences of divas of great wealth and influence who were discarded with the advent of new technology.
This theme transcends the ages and professions. A while back I had the opportunity to speak to former FE professionals whose careers had ended a long time ago. These teachers, managers and administrators had great insight into how the system worked in the good old days, pre-1993 incorporation, when colleges were run “family style”. At that time another, more universal, change was happening – computers were invading homes and offices. That was why so many of these people decided to leave the sector.
In the comparatively short time that I’ve worked in colleges, I’ve observed behaviour towards technology change. In 2008, when I started in FE, IT support staff were the wizards who unlocked the great secrets of those seemingly impenetrable machines. Teachers who were eager to engage with what the digital landscape had to offer were often seen as “a bit keen” –- and not in a good way. Then came a breed with titles like “digital resources manager” and “learning technology coordinator”. This gang actively sourced interesting technologies and it was no longer a crime to be keen.
Just as I start to get comfortable with one raft of digital innovations, a new set arrives to enable even more effective, more engaging, more efficient learning. Keeping on top of it is problematic for me. I’m not a technophobe – I know that my computer offers me more than just the ability to send emails and write documents – but unlocking the potential of digital devices doesn’t come naturally. When I’m being taught something new, I have to write it down, or I forget how to use it and why I should. It’s very frustrating.
Although ed tech is rapidly evolving, it is still in its infancy, at a similar point to where film was in the 1930s. Even digital refuseniks know that those who won’t get involved are missing out. But we need to make the effort to carry on learning – to build on those initial skills – or we could find ourselves in the same position as Norma Desmond: deluding ourselves by thinking what we already know, and what we can already do, is enough.
Sarah Simons works in FE colleges in the East Midlands