AS PUPILS from Buswells Lodge Primary school took out their transluscent green notebook computers to record facts on the workings of Westminister during a visit to the House of Commons, they found themselves surrounded by Members of Parliament. The Leicestershire pupils were wary - but all the MPs wanted to do was admire their new computers.
"Children don't often get the chance to impress Members of Parliament, but they were genuinely surprised, and a little envious, at how skilfully these youngsters were using the laptops," says Inderjit Sandhu, the school's acting head.
With only six months experience, Buswell's pupils are more than familiar with Xemplar's Apple eMate 300 - a notebook that is light enough (4lb) for a school bag, strong enough to withstand being dropped, uses a matching green pen instead of a mouse for selecting, drawing and writing on its touch-screen, and has the potential to replace exercise books, pens and calculators.
The school has 24 eMates, and teachers sometimes take one home to set up work for the children, who use them across the curriculum to develop skills such as spelling and data-handling.
There is nothing fragile about the eMate - drop it and it will bounce back as good as new. The screen stays in any position and can fold flat to be used as a clipboard. The connection ports are protected by a sliding cover, and it has "inkwells" on either side of the keyboard to hold the pen while you're typing.
During their Commons visit, the 10-year-olds quickened their notetaking by typing in key words about the visit on the laptop. The notes were then developed later, back in the classroom, and once finished were transferred to one of the school's desktop computers for printing. "The children found it easier to work like this because they didn't have to worry about spellings at this stage," says Ms Sandhu.
The eMate, which is based on Apple's Newton MessagePad hand-held computers, runs on a rechargable battery that last for 24 hours - equivalent to about a week's worth of use in school. It has no disc drives; work is automatically saved in the memory and once you have finished working you can either connect a cable and transfer data to an Apple Mac, Windows PC or Acorn, or you can "beam" it over by an infrared link.
David Amstead, deputy head and information and communications technology (ICT) co-ordinator at Duston Upper School, Northamptonshire, always wanted his students to have truly mobile technology. So when the time came to improve the school's ICT facilities, he knew what he wanted.
"In addition", he says, "we were looking for equipment that could connect to our existing PCs and also have the facility that would enable students to save and send pieces of work to the main PC at different times, to be collected and assembled later."
Staff tested all the portables and palmtops on the market. Two weeks with the eMate convinced them. Students in Years 9 and 10 now share 40 eMates. Next year, staff will decide whether they should increase the school's stock.
"What really sold the eMate to us was the battery life," says Mr Amstead. "The problem with most laptops is that, just when you are getting down to it, the battery dies. After charging for 40 minutes or so, we get a whole week's worth of work. And we haven't yet worked out how to get into the battery area, let alone lose any."
"During a 50-minute period students barely have enough time to produce a finished piece of work. With the eMate they can produce a paragraph or two, a spreadsheet or drawing, name and save it in a user area of the school network to be assembled into one document later."
Ms Sandhu says technology alone is not enough. "I won't say it is the way forward in education. It is an aid to learning," she says. "The eMate gave us the chance to have access to one computer per child in a whole class, which we have found particularly useful for visually impaired pupils. Their worksheets on the computer are written in a large font so they do not feel isolated or separated from the main class."
The eMate is easy to use, even for students with learning difficulties. "It is tremendously motivating," says Mr Amstead. "Even the less motivated students are really fired up by these things. And now that we have found a company willing to insure them for theft and damage in and out of school, more teachers are willing to take them home to improve their capability, and with students taking them out of school to do their homework on, it means we are getting a lot more work out of our pupils."
Xemplar stands 241, 440, SN9
Tel: 01223 724724
There are four eMates to be won at BETT '98. Register at the TES stand (264) to enter our draw for three laptops. Xemplar is running a competition with BETT '98 for a fourth eMate.