I recently read a book about unloading cargoes in London’s Royal Docks in the 1950s. I soon realised that much of the book was oddly familiar.
The author worked on the decks and in the holds of cargo ships, keeping a tally of goods lifted. Behind him was the shipping company’s head office. It was staffed by people who seldom came aboard actual ships but who had plenty of ideas for improving efficiency. One of them was particularly dim-witted.
Cargoes were typically unloaded into unpowered barges known as lighters. When they reached their capacity of 250 tons of goods, they would be punted off, and a fresh lighter would be brought alongside and secured. The changeover usually took about an hour. To head office, it seemed obvious that if the barges could take 500 tons, stoppage time would be reduced by half.
So two 500-ton prototypes were ordered. But, of course, stoppage times increased – as anyone actually working cargoes would have told them, had they bothered to ask. The reasons were simple: doubling the lighter capacity involved nearly doubling the length, which means that it cannot be reached in its totality by the dockside crane working the hold. It has to be moved two or three times before it is full. The innovation was quietly dropped.
The Royal Docks are now a major campus of one of London’s universities. Many such institutions have invested immense amounts of money during the past decade in refurbishing their teaching rooms with state-of-the-art facilities. Unfortunately, nobody asked lecturers what kinds of systems should be installed. That is why the lecterns provided at medieval universities were better adapted to purpose than all this high-tech, counter-intuitive paraphernalia that ignores the needs of a human lecturer.
For instance, the only available surface for lecture notes is horizontal and below navel-height, obliging the speaker to peer vertically downwards, chin-on-chest, for much of the time. There is no hope of creating the illusion – possible with a conventional angled lectern and a talking style of delivery – that you are not using any notes at all.
Whenever I attend a lecture in rooms like these at conferences, I see speakers struggling. The room lights dim suddenly if the “smart” sensors cannot detect movement. The system needs constant tending, like a baby, so a slide loop will suddenly freeze if the speaker doesn’t keep touching something or other.
When the display screen is lit, the speaker is sidelined in semi-darkness. The rooms have no recognisable light switches, and when lecturers ask students to help, the students seem as baffled as we are, despite being “digital natives”.
The array of devices on the podium give out alarming messages when touched. “There are no controls for this device” is one response. When I phone a technician to ask what PIR means on a set of push-buttons, I learn – completely unhelpfully – that it stands for “person in room”. When I ask how to put the lights on, I’m told it’s the button marked “cleaning”. When I ask why the image keeps disappearing from the desk monitor, I’m instructed to press the button at the bottom of the screen. But I can’t see any button. “It’s behind the lower rim of the screen,” my interlocutor persists. “Behind?” I answer, disbelievingly, provoking a complete loss of patience, as if it is obvious that vital controls are unlabelled and hidden.
Yes, there are training days, but all this stuff should be transparent. I want to think about the lecture before the lecture, not about badly designed technology.
In the 1980 film The Long Good Friday, Bob Hoskins’ character gestures towards the now desolate expanse of water in the Royal Docks, and says: “I remember when ships had to queue up to get in here”. Like Hoskins, I can remember when students had to queue up to get into lecture theatres. They don’t any more, as all lectures have to be live-recorded and immediately made available on the “virtual learning environment”, so attendances are low.
It is obvious what universities will unload next.
Peter Barry is emeritus professor of English at Aberystwyth University.