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Thursday
Feb132014

It ain't heavy, it's my Brother

It is now almost 2 decades ago that I landed my first post as Head of Department in a secondary (high) school. The grand title of the newly-created job was Head of Business Studies and Information Technology. So how has the job changed in the last 20 years?

The most obvious difference is the job title itself. The first IT teaching jobs were teaching Computer Studies. Now that I’ve said that, are you beginning to feel a sense of Déjà vu? The Computing was usually done under the auspices of  the Mathematics department. Quite understandable if you come to think about it, given the emphasis on programming and that sort of thing. Then people started to see the connection between subjects like Business Studies and Computing. Or perhaps it was simple expediency: neither Business Studies nor Computer Studies would be enough to fill  a teacher's timetable on their own, so why not put them both together?

Then a new course was launched. Called Business and Information Studies, it was the first course (or one of the first courses, perhaps) to explicitly link business and information technology. For example, students had to word process their work, and they had to use a spreadsheet (presentation software wasn't around in those early days). Business loved it, because it meant that kids were leaving school with employable skills.

(These days, of course, it is relatively rare to see an advertisement for Head of ICT with something else, because ICT is a core subject in England in all but name. In other words, the job is simply too big to be able to combine it with something else. As a matter of fact, it always was, but Headteachers could never quite bring themselves to admit it. Whether it continues to be a core subject now that it has changed to Computing remains to be seen. I believe that a good opportunity has been missed to involve other subject areas, especially Match, Science and English.)

The network I found myself in charge of was brand spanking new, and consisted of 8 gleaming BBC Master workstations and a server in a locked cupboard, to which was connected a Brother printer. This printer used a golfball, a revolutionary (literally) invention that enabled you to have different fonts -- unfortunately, though, not in the same document: you had to change the golfball to enjoy the variety.

I seem to recall you could have bold print, and capitals, and that was it. Printing was ponderously slow, but of superb quality. Or maybe that was an illusion created by comparing it to the other printer we had, a dot matrix which was both fast and noisy. So much so that it was around that time that I very rapidly developed the technique of asking the students to start packing up 15 minutes before the end of the lesson, so that by the time I wound the lesson up I wasn't competing with the printer.

The interesting thing about the network was that if you set up users properly it would take 5 minutes per student. You had to first create a group, let's say "4th Year" (as the Years were referred to in those days). Then you had to create a user identity for each user. Then you had to create a directory for each user. Then you had to allocate the user to the group and to the directory. I had an average of 28 students per class, and 6 classes. And, because I was the network manager as well as Head of Department, in theory I was obliged to set up user identities for every class in the school.

I set up a  couple of teaching groups, but then realised it was a hopeless and pointless task. It was much easier to set up one class of generic users, known imaginatively as user1, user2 and so on. For some reason, doing that was a work of seconds. You simply told the system how many users you wanted in the generic group, and it created them, just like that.

The software had three disadvantages compared to today's, from a user's point of view. First, there wasn't that much generic software around. There were word processors, databases and spreadsheets, and that was more or less it. Most of the software was designed for computer-aided learning in particular subject areas.

Secondy, it wasn't easy to use. For example, word processors were not WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get), or at least not at first, anyway. You had to insert codes in order to get bold text, or centred text. That's why I fell in love with a computer called the Atari ST. It had a graphical user interface, WYSIWIG and, in anticipation of my next point, a common interface to all applications.

So, the third disadvantage was that apart from computers like the Atari, all software applications looked and worked differently. I know everyone loves to hate Microsoft, but at least they imposed certain conventions, such as having a File menu containing commands like New, Save and Print. In other words, with most applications these days you can start to find your way around fairly quickly because we're used to having certain functions in a certain place on the screen, and the icons used tend to be ubiquitous.

So, 2 decades on, and the hardware is much easier to manage, and the software is much easier to get to grips with. So where does that leave the technology co-ordinator, ICT Co-ordinator, or e-Learning Co-ordinator?

I believe that the main role of the tech co-ordinator nowadays is as an expert in learning and pedagogy. Or, to be more accurate, an expert in matching up particular pedagogical requirements with particular educational technology solutions.

Twenty years ago, we were hardware mechanics, network technicians and pioneers. These days we are learning mentors, educational experts, and, still, pioneers. These are great times to be doing this kind of work.

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