For most teachers, technology in the classroom means one thing - computers. But with the cheapest new computer costing at least pound;500, minus educational software, the cost of having enough computers to ensure every pupil has regular access is too high for many primary schools.
It doesn't have to be all or nothing, however. ICT equipment comes in many guises and, while the PC or Mac will always be the most sought-after piece of hardware, there are other options available to teachers keen to extend the use of ICT in the classroom.
Fiona Andrew, learning resources co-ordinator for Learning and Teaching Scotland, ran a seminar on computer companions for a recent National Grid for Learning day in Glasgow. She says a growing number of schools are looking beyond the standard computer to improve ICT provision. "I think a lot of people believe they have to buy computers or big computer suites for classrooms, but it is a view that is changing. More and more teachers are trying to get ICT for use by all of their pupils in the classroom."
The LeapPad Learning Centre from LeapFrog Toys is an affordable way to introduce technology into the literacy hour. The laptop-sized unit, which costs pound;60 from Early Learning Centres, brings interactivity to the printed page. With the use of a "magic" pen, children can listen to text being read, point to words on the page to hear how they are pronounced and spelt, and point to pictures to hear sound effects. They can also point to words to create new sentences.
LeapPad comes with a 32-page interactive book called Leap into Learning, which covers subjects such as geography, science, music and languages. Additional story books - some based on well-known cartoon characters - cost pound;12. To change books, you slot a cartridge into the side of the unit and position the book in the plastic case. LeapPad has limited uses in the classroom, but is easy to use and allows children to work independently at their own pace with a multi-sensory product.
AlphaSmart 3000 is the latest version of the popular computer companion from Tag Learning. Costing around pound;189 (plus pound;10 for connection cable), it is a light, portable keyboard that lets pupils type, edit, store and transfer text.
The text produced on AlphaSmart is easily trnsferred to a PC, Mac, Acorn or a printer with a file transfer cable. A cable-free infrared link is available for an extra pound;10. (All prices exclude VAT.) AlphaSmart 3000 runs on three AA batteries, which last between 200 and 500 hours. While the product has a small screen and basic word processing options, such as cut, copy, paste and spellcheck, it does give children the chance to practice their keyboard skills or to manipulate text and see their words on screen.
For the first time, more sophisticated mini word processing software applications called Smart Applets are available to AlphaSmart 3000 users. Smart Applets, which include "Calculator" and "AlphaWord", extend the functionality of the product. Some now come standard with the latest AlphaSmart 3000 model, but others can be downloaded from a separate CD-Rom, priced at pound;29.95.
Perhaps the best known computer companion on the market is the more sophisticated DreamWriter IT from NTS. The product won the primary category in the 2000 BETT Awards for ICT Hardware. With Windows CE it offers a greater range of word processing facilities than the AlphaSmart 3000, including a thesaurus, dictionary and grammar check.
DreamWriter IT also has data-logging and a scientific graphing calculator, plus a built-in modem and mouse. Like AlphaSmart 3000, DreamWriter IT has an infrared data-transfer option. It can also be recharged in 30 minutes and stored on a Rol-A-Lab or IT Bookshelf.
DreamWriter IT costs pound;549, plus pound;30 for a carry case. A Rol-A-Lab with six Dreamwriter ITs costs pound;4,000. (All prices exclude VAT.) None of these products offers the last word in educational technology, but they do let children use ICT when expensive resources are in short supply. LeapPad brings another dimension to reading and DreamWriter IT and AlphaSmart 3000 give children and teachers more time and flexibility.
Computer companions are not full-time alternatives to desktops or laptops. They do, however, offer a cheaper, more portable and rugged alternative for schools wanting to ensure access for all.
Dreamwriter Solutions, tel: 01902 423 111; e-mail: email@example.com; website: www.dreamwriter.co.uk. Early Learning Centres, tel: 08705 352 352; website: www.elc.co.uk. TAG Learning Ltd, tel: 01474 357 350; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org; website: www.tagdev.co.uk..Win a LeapPad Learning Centre - See page 55