A born-again experience

Maureen McTaggart on a Pounds 4 million project to put hardware in the hands of staff.

Until last year, Richard Eastop was not at all confident about using computers to complement his teaching. In common with colleagues throughout the country, the English teacher from Wollaston school in Northamptonshire had only managed to acquire enough knowledge about information technology to "get by".

Had anyone asked him then how computer literate he was, he admits he would have had to answer: "On a scale of one to five, I reckon I would have scored about three."

Nearly seven months later his score has shot off the scale, and is probably hovering somewhere in cyberspace. This is because Mr Eastop, along with more than 1,000 colleagues from almost 600 schools, is taking part in a year-long, nationwide pilot scheme to assess the curriculum potential of portable computers in primary, secondary and special schools.

The scheme - Portable Computers for Teachers - is funded by the Department for Education and Employment to the tune of Pounds 4 million, and is a follow-up of a smaller study in 1993 that showed portable computers were a hit with schools. It is run by the National Council for Educational Technology, and provides teachers with multimedia portable computers with CD-Rom drives and Internet connections.

Last month Lord Henley, the schools IT minister, announced the Government's continuing commitment to "developing technology in education" by pledging a further Pounds 1 million for phase two of the pilot.

Fred Daly, director of the NCET, says: "Preliminary findings have shown that teachers regard the portable computer as an indispensable productivity tool. They are also developing an awareness of the opportunities for the use of IT, both for their own professional development and in the classroom."

Since the summer the portables have been used in most curriculum areas and across a range of age and ability to do things which were not previously possible. Susan Aldous, head of religious education at St Benedict's RC upper school, Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk, has been using hers to develop lessons on practical ethics.

Before taking part in the scheme, she thought the computer was just "a very expensive typewriter. I didn't want one for myself but thought it might be useful for my pupils.

"It is amazing how at first you don't know anything about these machines. Then, six months down the road, you are completely at home with the jargon. I think I can probably say it has been a born-again experience."

The evaluation of the scheme will not officially finish until September this year, when a final report is to be published. But it is already evident that the portables have received the nod of approval.

All the portables, which cover the Apple and PC-compatible platforms, have been equipped to allow teachers access to state-of-the-art technologies, particularly CD-Rom and the Internet.

It is this last facility that gets the most votes. Although the curriculum-related CD-Roms were appreciated, most of the teachers prefer to talk about how "the earth's new brain", as Peter Allen, science teacher at Passmores school, Harlow, Essex, describes the Internet, has become an important aspect of the school's work. How it contains an incredible amount of educational material they can use alongside conventional teaching, and as extension materials for pupils.

The science department at Passmores school has created a home page on the World Wide Web, which has attracted more than 400 visits and daily e-mails asking for experimental results. Students are now working on a science exchange project with a school in New Zealand.

Peter Allen says his portable has enabled him to do what he has always dreamed of - sharing his pupils' results with others. "We can now develop joint projects using the Internet, and I can take the machine from one laboratory to another without losing work."

The main focus of the nationwide evaluation is to find out if portables and multimedia are a useful way of developing teachers' confidence and competence in IT.

Since the beginning of the pilot, Mrs Aldous has gone from being scared to touch the computer to being frustrated because she couldn't fix it when it crashed: "I am now in a position to ask questions and make demands for more IT provision."

But the project is not without its critics, mainly because it is funded by "end-of-year underspend" - government cash that would otherwise go back to the Treasury. A survey of members of the National Association of Advisers for Computers in Education suggests that there is room for improvement in the way the scheme has been handled. Insufficient training opportunities, confusion over liaison arrangements with the schools, suppliers and the NCET, concern over the reliability of the equipment and the monitoring of the scheme's impact on the schools' environment were among the most common complaints.

But those who run the scheme are at least glad to be able to have something to give to schools. Understandably, schools tend to agree: don't look a gift horse in the mouth, particularly when there doesn't appear to be any long-term government strategy to fund equipment for IT in education.

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