Are whiteboards the only answer?

Just when you have the "right" technology something comes along to date and devalue your kit. Except there's probably no such thing as the "right" technology - more like "right for the purpose"... for now.

Many schools and school purchasers are going through this sort of techno-angst as they try to get the best out of various sources of government cash to exploit the potential of the emerging National Grid for Learning. And nowhere is it more obvious than in presentation technology. Teachers at the forefront are injecting verve and depth into their lessons with the help of technology that can bring impressive graphics, sound, multimedia and the web to a large, glowing screen at the front of their class. Students are captivated, and are even playing their own part - where good, involving software is used.

But when a hype builds up around a technology it's time to tread carefully because, contrary to what many evangelists might like to say, we are still at the beginning of this revolution. And when politicians start repeating a "whiteboards" mantra it's definitely time to take stock. This technology is still relatively expensive and the "total cost of ownership" concept, favoured by government agencies, reveals even higher costs - like training, which is absolutely essential.

This TES Online attempts to ask some helpful questions about whiteboard use, and we feel that the approach of Robin Hood School, an impressive primary in Birmingham (p19), holds some valuable lessons. There are also attractive alternatives emerging, like the new "tablet" PCs described in George Cole's Circuit column (p26). The good news is that innovative software tools that work on all these technologies are starting to emerge for teachers from classroom favourites like Softease, who have just released their Easiteach Studio suite (p25).

The Government is talking to Microsoft to try to get a better deal for schools. That is a good idea, up to a point. There has been universal disquiet for some time about the software giant's licensing policies. Those with an unswerving commitment to Bill Gates' platform haven't been unduly disturbed, but independent, critical souls have been worried. We no longer "own" our software; we merely rent it until the dealer decides that it's in our interest to have the next, better flavour. It's a bit like a drug. Suddenly, you realise you can't operate without it.

That's why there's so much current debate about Open Source systems and Linux, and why the more technical savvy are making savings with Open Source where appropriate and paying tribute to Microsoft where the company earns it on competition, rather than just because it appears to run the show.

The Government must insist on openness and competition - something it's not very good at - or it runs the danger of becoming Microsoft's surrogate partner and actually reducing competition, albeit with good intentions.

Merlin John, editor

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