Funding information technology equipment in schools, especially primary schools, has always been a problem. Since the Micros in Schools project of the 1980s, primary schools have struggled to get enough desktop machines. Only a few have succeeded. The First Byte project in Wiltshire aims to provide as many Swindon primary schools as possible with the equipment to make a difference to the way they work.
Sandy Milne, one of the founder members of the project, says that a speech by Sir David Puttnam, the film producer, first got him interested in IT in schools. Puttnam talked about the potential of the UK to harness the creative power of the media to produce world-class software - and about the importance of providing a computer for every child.
Milne's investigation revealed that the town's secondary schools were doing relatively well in terms of computer hardware. But primary schools had few machines, and those they did have were outdated. So the First Byte group decided that the priority was to provide a computer for each Year 6 (top junior) pupil.
The group took advice from the National Council for Educational Technology, Swindon education authority, teachers, and manufacturers. There then followed a series of demonstrations in 11 primary schools, one for each area of the town, by leading manufacturers.
It was the Tandy equipment that captured the imagination of most people. The company demonstrated its Dreamwriter, which is its follow-up to the WP3 portable word-processor (and like the WP3 an A4 notebook). The new machine has additional features such as spell-checking, grammar-checking, page-zooming and a thesaurus.
What makes the Dreamwriter different from other portables is that it uses a new idea that removes the nuisance factor from managing a class-set of up to 30 machines. The Rol-A-Lab, first developed in Canada, holds 30 Dreamwriters in a secure, lockable cabinet that can be easily wheeled from classroom to classroom. While the machines are in the Rol-A-Lab, a single three-pin plug is all that is needed to charge them all. This makes classroom management of 30 portable machines absolutely straightforward.
The Rol-A-Lab can also accommodate two desktop machines, and file transfer from the Dreamwriters to PCs, Acorns, or Macintoshes, which allows children's work to be used in other software such as desktop publishing.
One of the schools attending the demonstration was so impressed with the Tandy system that it didn't wait for First Byte to help them out but decided to invest in the kit anyway.
The concept of laptop computers that worked with one or two "mother" computers gave First Byte a tangible target. Equipping a primary school Year 6 class with 30 Dreamwriters and a Rol-A-Lab costs around Pounds 5,000. The first recipient under the project's programme is Penhill Junior School. The headteacher, Robin Phoenix-Stone, believes that the Tandy system provides a new approach to the use of IT in schools.
The school has invested in a desktop Macintosh machine with CD-Rom drive, scanner and printer to complement the Dreamwriters. This means that the expensive desktop system is used only when it is really needed, and pupils have ready access to IT through the Dreamwriters. Text produced on the Dreamwriter can be edited and spell-checked before sending it to the desktop system, where scanned graphics and additional information from CD resources can be added. The system provides a significant saving over one-per-child desktop systems and has been enthusiastically received by the pupils.
Funds for the First Byte project are raised from businesses and groups in Swindon as a way of "sponsoring" the local school. The project has now raised most of the money towards equipping a second school. Sandy Milne says that it has been harder to raise funds than he expected, but he sees raising money as only a first step in developing school-company partnerships.
As with all partnerships, each partner has to contribute. The schools have to ensure that they have enough trained IT staff and that they produce an evaluation report on the equipment they have been given. This will help First Byte when it makes its next purchase. If the popular view is that the Dreamwriters and Rol-A-Lab are the best buy for schools, then, provided sufficient money has been raised, First Byte will be able to make savings through bulk purchase and stretch the funds even further.
Milne is under no illusion that this is a short-term project. He reckons that school computers have a life of around five useful years. So First Byte could well be like painting the Forth Bridge.
The Tandy Dreamwriter costs Pounds 169; a Rol-A-Lab with 30 Dreamwriters costs Pounds 4,999. Tel: 01922 4340407 (educational discounts are not available in Tandy stores).