Rory Cellan-Jones

A lesson from tech hell

  • Rory Cellan-Jones
  • 15 Jan 09, 16:25 GMT

It was meant to be a day in which I learned about the role technology is now playing in education - but it turned into a painful lesson in how technology can bite you. A visit to BETT, the ICT-in-education show, seemed a great idea.

I've long felt that the story of the ICT revolution in schools has not been properly examined - certainly by me. After all, the government has invested £5bn in giving schools in England everything from broadband connections to electronic whiteboards - but are we clear that there has been an educational dividend from that investment?

So I promised the News Channel a series of live broadcasts and the News At One a taped report from the show. Cue total tech disaster - everything that could go wrong did go wrong.

First of all, our satellite truck just couldn't lock onto a signal outside Olympia - and by the time it found one, we were too busy putting together our One O'Clock package to go live.

We finished editing in a cubby hole, kindly lent us by the organisers, at exactly 1300 GMT - not unusual in a world where we work very close to the wire. The report was due on air at 1320 GMT so we had plenty of time to export it to tape from the laptop where it had been edited with the Avid program and take it outside to the satellite truck. First problem - the laptop simply refused to export the file to tape.

Undaunted, my cameraman/picture editor suggested we should just plug his laptop into the truck via a Firewire cable. Cue frantic search for the right cable - and then by 1310 GMT we were ready to feed. No cause for panic, then - until the laptop crashed. Every time we tried to launch Avid, we got an incomprehensible error message. We crept closer and closer to our slot, with me jumping up and down in despair. Finally, we had to admit failure - and the bulletin had to do without our report. In the circumstances, my bosses were very understanding - though there were the usual jibes about a technology correspondent at a technology show being let down by technology.

Which set me thinking. The problem with advances in the technology we use - whether in journalism or the classroom - is that they can impose huge stress on those who use them. I walked round the BETT show admiring all the tools that are now available to today's teachers - from netbooks, through electronic whiteboards, to the cheap cameras being wielded by an enthusiastic group of students from a London school making their own report about the show.

But then I remembered what one very experienced teacher had told me a few weeks ago. He said the best form of teaching was still all about chalk and talk, and that the technology had been a hindrance not a help. He described student teachers overburdened with work and losing confidence because they now felt that they had to prepare a Powerpoint presentation for every lesson on the electronic whiteboard.

Now, I do think this particular teacher - though he denied it - was from the Luddite tendency. But I think the point about stress was well made. In all my years editing pieces out in the field on tape, I can never remember an occasion when machine failure has stopped us getting on air. But twice in the last couple of years a laptop has refused to spew out my precious report - leaving both me and the editor helpless. With the old machines, you could at least bash them - somehow laptops don't respond to that treatment.

Let me be clear - I do believe that just about all these advances in the technology used by both teachers and journalists are worthwhile. But each time a transition comes along, there is bound to be a lot of stress for the practitioners - and that is sometimes ignored by their manager.

Anyway, eventually we did get the video files out of one laptop and onto another, and our report was finally shown on the News Channel. In case you missed it, you'll find it embedded here - but what it doesn't show is any of the pain involved in making it.

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  • Comment number 1.

    I left a job in FE last year where part of my remit was to encourage the use of ICT in teaching. I think that we had quite a few of the Luddite tendency around, one of whom actually thought that they would rather have blackboards than whiteboards (and I don't mean the interactive type!).

    So I understand about the stresses of introducing new technology into education. But things have always changed and will continue to do so, so we have to be prepared to change the way we do things.

    I now work in virtual world development which is an even bigger jump both mentally and technically than PowerPoint is so the next few years are going to be even more interesting. I guess at the end of it we need to find ways to engage teachers who are sceptics, to give them something to hang on to so that they feel that they can use new technology and get something out of it for their teaching. But we also need to let them know that they might need to look at their own mindset and be a bit more welcoming of these new techniques and technologies.

  • Comment number 2.

    As a systems engineer I sometimes lecture for a spell at university. Interestingly I had to use these electronic whiteboards last year and found that they encouraged the students not to interact with the lecturer and teaching becomes more of a one wat street. A good example of good intentions and bad use of technology.

    We actually went back to a stand with a1 sheets and the way the students were interacting with and how I could adjust the lesson quickly was striking.

  • Comment number 3.

    Being married to a teacher who is no ICT whizz-kid, and of a certain age to be regarded as "mature", she has embraced the ICT available within her school (laptop, smart-board) and finds it an invaluable tool - "chalk and talk" is very much for the past. An Ofsted inspection only this week saw her have a tech-glitch much like your own, but she recovered and was judged on her cool management of the situation (and the kids reaction - patient). We do have to be mindful of technology for technology sake, and the benefits of application need to be considered and trialed, but you ignore progress at your peril. Change is always hard work ("stress" is a very much over-used phrase) and it takes time to make use habitual, but usually reaps the benefits as long as the application is used properly.

    Implementing change and poor people management is another minefield altogther!

  • Comment number 4.

    Excellent report, Rory, excellent. What you have done in this short video is encapsulate the same 'process' that teachers go through with regard to ICT.
    At first, we are intrigued, entranced, maybe even seduced, by the technology and its wizziness.
    Then we start to put it into place in the classrooms. We use it, or not, as best we can. Sometimes it gets used in innovative ways and sometimes it supports existing methods of teaching.
    Then we reach the stage where we see through the techno-magic of the gizmos and we evaluate the effectiveness of the pieces of kit. We ask ourselves is the expenditure justified and what evidence is there to support the benefits.
    To my mind, as someone who has been in Educational ICT for 30 years, it is a sign of the maturity of the ICT market that people now question the effectiveness of ICT and that suppliers cannot merely market their products on its 'novelty' or geeky value.
    I feel there is evidence that ICT is improving, even transforming education and maybe that is a topic for a follow up video. After all, transforming educatio is the keystone of the givernment's BSF, academy and primary captal programmes.

  • Comment number 5.

    I think we have to see schools buying cheap netbooks, operating system irrelevant, running OpenOffice with one per child. Trolleys of full-on laptops have proven to be unreliable and more expensive in the long term than desktops.

    If it were me in No10, I would just give one to every kid in the country from 8 or 9 up, stick 3G in them and create a filtered 3G educational network with a national schools’ ISP. Have educational content, etc. on there and make kids independent of filtering whims dependent on each LEA or school.

    We have had a national computer before - the BBC-B - so why not do so again with a netbook?

    I would have suites of desktops dual booting with Windows/Ubuntu or MacOS X/Ubuntu and chuck out traditional ICT GCSEs in favour of modular certificates in skills at two levels, building up to larger IT qualifications, in the model of the marvelous INGOTs and starting at Y7. I would insist that every kid experience at least two operating systems and office suites (and ban students from thinking that web design involves telling Word to “Save as a Web Page”!).

    I would also, whilst we are at it, insist that every educational publisher release all textbooks, teacher guides and worksheets as DRM’ed eBooks to stop our kids having to lug suitcases round on their backs.

    Once the kids know how to use their own personal, standardised learning device, any lack of understanding by teachers will be less relevant.

    [Personal details removed by Moderator]

  • Comment number 6.

    My partner teaches GCSE Photography at a school. Nowadays the use of ICT is essential for this. As long as the technology works it's very productive and time effective.

    But because it was insisted that the graphics work stations should be part of the hotchpotch school network the scope for problems that prevent students from accessing, manipulating and printing their work is vastly increased.

    When problems occur it can cause students to lose serial productive sessions for which chalk and talk is no substitute.

    While for many subjects the addition of computing is viewed as 'value added', for some it is now essential to have robust computer resources that the school properly finance the maintenance and management of.

    Instead it's viewed as a cycle of capital expenditure, upgrading to the latest hardware that schools focussed suppliers dazzle them with.

    The purchase budget is out of balance with the management and maintenance budget. I suspect because those making the financial decisions don't have sufficient knowledge of the requirements.

    'We've bought x number of new computers therefore we have state of the art computing.'

  • Comment number 7.

    Great post to start a debate. I have worked organisations that deploy technology well and awefully. The defining contribution to these outcomes is a vision of "where this is all going" and having different tools for different process.

    The use of IT can hinder interaction and I can see a use for a blackboard or (low tech)white board for ad hoc learning along side more powerful multimedia type tech.

    I have been experimenting with collaborative Web 2.0 tools for remote teams and they can get in the way of trully colaborative work. A group around a table, post it notes on a board or standing around a white board produce much better results. Much to the consternation of those who control the travel budgets.

    So I think there needs to be an understanding that hi tech and low tech have there place. Do not prescribe too much and let them find a way to use it all.

  • Comment number 8.

    I have no doubt that the use of technology in schools will lead to a better learning experience. But having put things like powerpoint presentations together I also know who time consuming they are to set up.

    What worries me is that Teachers get enough extra time in their lesson planning to create the presentations properly. If they aren't then we will just get lower quality teaching with pretty pictures.

  • Comment number 9.

    Technology in schools is a good thing, however most of the time it is used badly.

    As an adult I have sat and gotten very bored at slide after slide of a PC presentation, imagine how that feels for a group of 11 year olds! I somehow feel that the shift to pre-prepared slides has removed the performance aspect out of teaching (I hated maths at school, but enjoyed the constant random blackboard doodlings of my teacher).

    In my experience (I've got a PGCE in ICT but currently work as an Outdoor Education instructor) the technology is not an answer, it is only a tool. You can use a powerpoint to explain the solar system, but nothing gets reactions like getting the kids into a planetarium. Similarly we could spend a long time with a computer animation of what happens in the meander of a river, but for most kids it doesn't seem to truly sink in until they are up to thier knee's in a river.

    So, rather than giving kids laptops (and the poor sitting posture that they'll inherit from using them whilst they are growing) we should be allowing them to develop the skills necessary for them to be able to choose what tools are appropriate.

    Rome wasn't built in a day, and they didn't just use hammers!

  • Comment number 10.

    Should have used Final Cut Pro and a Macbook Pro - never fails :-)

  • Comment number 11.

    I recently had a look at "" (USA), it gave me the impression that we in the UK are being ripped off by microsoft, it is totally different from our own, it gives reports on equipment available on the market (Good or bad), "vista gets terrible reports and it is not doing well in USA so they are replacing it with "windows 7 beta", the americans have terrible reports about vista and how it is not compatible with a lot of equipment, its new replacement windows 7 has the same problems, so users are sticking with XP, so is microsoft waiting until all the vista are sold over here before they tell us about windows 7, that is just as bad. Rory Cellan Jones doe's all the reports on the new gear, has he not heard anything about this yet?

  • Comment number 12.

    I am bookmarking this post so that next time I am stressed out by a malfunctioning piece of equipment I can be reminded that I'm not alone, and at least I'm not holding up a national news programme!

  • Comment number 13.

    One of the least understood aspects of technology is that it takes time to mature. The marketing guys constantly talk about the "ultimate" gadget, and yet, six months later there is the next generation of that ultimate gadget, this time, even more "ultimate" than before.

    Take for example optical disc players - standalone or in home theaters or PCs - each one in the last 8 or 10 years claiming to outplay the other..and each one, "hanging" or crashing or rebooting or plain-simple getting stuck for one disc or another ...We simply don't yet have a disc player which has grown over these pains of (in)compatibility and fragility.

    This is also true for projectors and laptops. Often projectors refuse to work with certain laptops (or vice versa) because of technology generation gaps....Also true for codecs and containers...

    There will come a time when technology standardization will mean one real survivor. We can already swap files between Windows, Mac and Linux. This was not the case a few years ago ...Hopefully we can connect any laptop to any projector, any TV to any BluRay player, move music between PCs and phones and home theaters etc..and then have common / standard software paradigms including user-experience concepts ... Sure this will take time - and no marketeer will acknowledge this. Because there is only one eventual winner - decided by the consumers. Every frustrating consumer experience will only help select that one eventual winner. This frustration is the price we pay for creating the perfect world of the future ..we owe it to ourselves.

  • Comment number 14.

    My daughters' primary school had lots of interactive whiteboards. Nice, except that the special budget they were given to install them didn't run to PCs powerful enough to run the software that went with them!

    For months they were little more than expensive projector screens and it was no surprise at all that parents could not comprehend why a "whiteboard" cost so much and was claimed to be so useful.

    Eventually they got new PCs from a different budget and were able to demostrate what the whiteboards were really about but this is just one example of the "from on high" incompetence that dogs IT provision in schools.

    Paul DS.

  • Comment number 15.

    Great story, I work from home as an Architect and have an A1, A4 Printers, Scanner, Bluetooth, External Hard Drive, a main computer, laptop and a mobile phone that links in to my network when i take photographs. The amount of stress I sometimes go througn when I have a meeting is unbelieveable, when one or more of these items stops working, which seems to be on a regular basis!

    [Unsuitable/Broken URL removed by Moderator]



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