Is Technology always the best option?

Guest post by Education writer Gerald Haigh.

We’ve all learned that when it comes to choosing the right device or software for the job in hand, the correct option might be not to use technology at all. When I talk about this, I often refer to one of the most toe-curlingly embarrassing memories I’ve ever inflicted upon myself. It concerns the time when I used a Yamaha CX5M Music Computer to accompany a large choir. The year was 1985, and I had to conduct the final item in a big choral concert. The composer had provided a fine organ accompaniment, but at the time I was deluding myself that I was some sort of technology guru, and I decided that we should ignore the intentions of an authentic musical genius and let the Yamaha, my toy of choice at the time, play the score instead. A local IT enthusiast helped me to program the notes into the machine, painstakingly over many hours. The result, inevitably and entirely foreseeably, was disastrous. The accompaniment was inflexible and mechanical, and the sounds in the Yamaha were not, at that time, up to the job.

Choir members were furious, and the audience was just bewildered. It was an object lesson in how to take good technology – fine in its place, and ahead of its time in many ways – and use it inappropriately to solve a non-existent problem. Along the way I made unnecessary work for several people, annoyed lots more who deserved better, and ended up with inferior results.

The piece, incidentally, was Balfour Gardiner’s beautiful ‘Evening Hymn’ and to underline just how absurd was my whole concept, here’s how it should be done:

Henry Balfour Gardiner: Evening Hymn–How it should be done


I don’t think many readers will have done anything quite as crass as that. I’m sure, though, that some will have let their enthusiasm run ahead of common sense in less obvious ways. We’ve all seen those ‘over-engineered’ smartboard lessons that could have been done just as well – perhaps even better -- with a stick of chalk and a blackboard. And now, of course, we have, in some schools, despairing and ill-prepared teachers trying to find ways of squeezing value from a windfall of tablets bought without too much thought.

The problems come, I’d say, when teachers, or leaders, or both, become enamored with just one kind of IT, pushing ahead too quickly and too far with it, without regard to the appropriateness of the technology or to the context within which they’re working. Which, of course, is exactly the mistake I made with that Yamaha computer all those years ago.

Then, it seemed easier to make that kind of mistake, because in those early days we tended to see each product as a one-off solution to a particular problem. So, for example, a word processor was a standalone machine, presumably the result of someone trying to build a better typewriter. Then in the early Nineties, many schools spent big sums of money on single-purpose electronic registration systems, introducing them ‘big bang’ style without first reviewing the their whole-school attendance policy. I saw the resulting tears and grief for myself.

The computer-aware school then was often little more than a school with some gadgets stuck on in fairly random fashion. Some of these gadgets were helpful. Others made no difference. A few just messed things up.

Now, hopefully, we’ve all moved on. Microsoft in particular, offers a rich environment covering productivity in the classroom, storage and sharing of work, project management, administration, communication at every level, and ‘anytime anywhere’ working. But it still has to be used appropriately and with regard to the core business of learning, and so, to round of the complete offering, there’s an extensive hinterland of professional development and activity best exemplified by the ‘Partners in Learning’ network. The whole really is greater than the sum of its parts.

Note. The Yamaha Music Computer was essentially an MSX-DOS based home computer with a built-in synthesiser. MSX originated with Microsoft in Japan and became the system of choice across the Far East, the Soviet Union and parts of Europe into the Nineties, but it never really took off in UK and USA.

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