Comment: Beer mat policies plague education

21 Jul 2004

I know a man with an Atari 512. He bought it new about fifteen or sixteen years ago. But to this day, he hasn’t taken it out of its box other than to check what it looked like when he first got it. Recalling this makes me realise just how much technology has changed over the last couple of decades. When my friend got the Atari he was taken with the notion that he could now get the power of what you used to find in a big mainframe, connect it to his television, and do things.

While he was partially influenced by the decision to buy one for the children to play games with, he imagined that he could do loads of stuff because there were also things like spreadsheets and word processing, and it came with a Basic compiler. While the graphics quality was miserable – it had to be because the screen was a domestic television – I remember it had a Windows-like appearance with easily understood icons. To him this was a major selling point. He’d never seen an Apple computer and Apples were a bit expensive to leave lying around.

So my friend was taken in by the hype, got himself an Atari and then simply forgot about it. Why? Well, he didn’t really have a reason to use it. He wasn’t into computer games and, even if he started using the word processing software package, he wasn’t about to start word processing just because he could. And the thoughts of learning Basic lost its appeal fairly quickly.

What reminded me of this was the recent ‘policy statement’ from IBEC or ICT Ireland, which was picked up by some of the media. It appears that they have been doing some thinking about education and the potential for technology to revolutionise the whole process. They have come up with the rather startling suggestion that every secondary school pupil should have a laptop as it seems Ireland is in danger of falling behind the rest of the world because school kids don’t have laptops.

I wonder who has compiled this strange ‘laptop index’ of educational sophistication. I also wonder to what extent the ‘policy statement’ has been influenced by the fact that the members – and I imagine the financial patrons – of ICT Ireland just happen to be the main hardware and software suppliers who, according to the statement from ICT Ireland, will surprise us in their magnanimity when it comes to them playing their part.

I know that there has been a mixed reaction to the IBEC statement, which, incidentally also advocated the banning of exam-class students from part time work. While I can see some sense in this latter recommendation – particularly in the context of the points race – I can also see that for some kids from less well-off backgrounds, this would not be a welcome development at all. And one has to be conscious too that many of the high business achievers, even within the ranks of IBEC, didn’t darken too many school or lecture theatre doors in their day.

Indeed, I would go further and say that the very success that we have enjoyed can in part be traced to a time when people had to cope with adversity, mostly of the economic variety. I strongly suspect that our recently arrived prosperity could well yield a ‘nannied’ generation of eternal students who find it increasingly difficult to find a job or to blossom outside mainstream careers. There may already be evidence of this in the number of ‘ageing young’ who choose to stay at home with parents rather than go out and fend for themselves. So it might be better to examine the wider issues about our education system before coming out with ‘beer mat’ policy statements.

Indeed, an issue now emerging in the whole information society space is the need for content. I have to admit that I found it difficult to come to terms with the notion of ‘content’ a few years ago, probably because I was at the infatuation stage of the information society – obsessed with the need to get the gadgets – to make sure that everybody uses the internet, whether they need to or not. But we are all a little older and wiser now. We have been through several ‘must have’ periods and now people are asking what it’s all about.

Maybe it’s time to bring everything back to basics. The internet and all the related technology are really about making connections to sources of information and service without the constraints of time or space. So when it comes to doing old things in new ways, you have to ask yourself what technology does it take to make life better? What are the problems and challenges that we face that can be more easily solved through the application of technology? Or what new opportunities have we got to solve old problems?

Education involves connecting information providers to information consumers, so there has to be scope for applying technology. But you need someone with skills and experience to visualise how technology can make a big difference. Coming out with two-dimensional ‘policy’ statements like ‘laptops for school goers’ doesn’t add anything to our struggle to make progress. What is the real problem? If you look at the desired impact of an education system you might conclude that the concept of the schoolbag is redundant. Who knows?

Education isn’t just about schoolbags. It’s about learning to live, to become a stakeholder in society and maybe even to add value to it. Surely we can move beyond the beer mat to a more enlightened and knowledge-based approach that this subject deserves. Suggesting that all school-goers should have laptops is about as useful as suggesting that they should all carry hairdryers or Ataris. What will they use them for? What is the problem that needs to be solved?

We should have seen enough to know that it’s madness to define a problem within the limited scope of what appears to some to be a solution – especially those who happen to be selling the solution! There is no doubt that our education system needs a fresh approach. But let’s start by defining the problem before we start throwing solutions at it.

By Syl O’Connor