Chips with everything

Some educationists seem to think laptops for pupils are an educational panacea. But, says Christine Oldfield, their benefits are dubious and there are far better uses for taxpayers' money

IN yet another attempt to raise standards in schools, at least one education authority has stated its intention to provide a laptop computer for every child over the age of eight.

Anyone with an ounce of common sense realises that this idea is completely impractical and will introduce yet more organisational nightmares for teachers ("Miss, my battery's run out. . . I left it in the chip shop. . . I spilled Irn Bru on it. . . I wrote my essay then pressed the wrong key and lost it). But there are more compelling reasons why the powers-that-be should think again.

Today's pupils have had access to computers throughout their education. In the secondary years, they get compulsory courses in information and communications technology. They also get ample opportunity to apply skills acquired in these courses to other areas of study.

But has anyone actually thought to compare such offerings with those produced in the past by employing the "old-fashioned" method of consulting library books and then using pen and pencil to handwrite reports? The finished product using a computer might look neater and more professional. But it is the content which should be assessed and, sadly, this is too often illiterate and inadequate - not to mention plagiarised.

Literacy is one of the skills that the executive says will be strengthened by greater use of computers. Perhaps they should consider the following letter presented recently as part of internally assessed work in an ICT course: "Deer Mr Smith, Cognations on wining the completion for gassing the name of the last months most poplar cording artist. Your prise is to chose sum videos from one of our companies store. You can have any five you want from our surplice stock.

"Please right to let me no which store you want to get your prise in and when you can go and I will tell the manger to aspect you. I hop the videos gibe you ours of entrainment."

The pupil's letter had been spell-checked so this corrected version must be OK, mustn't it? But, of course, words like deer, poplar, prise, correct in other contexts, were not picked up as errors. Congrations, competion, gessing and ecspect were highlighted as incorrect spellings but the pupil chose to replace them with the first option offered on the spell check list - cognations, completion, gassing and aspect - out of habit andor inability to recognise the right word for the context.

This letter was by no means an isolated case nor an extreme one. Hundreds of other similarly poor examples were submitted for assessment, the result of blind faith in machines and a lack of basic language skills. The only worthwhile contribution of the computer is that the gobbledygook can be read more easily than if scribbled by hand.

Acquisition of language and literacy skills is a cumulative process that starts at birth and continues through one's life. The early formative years are crucial and computers can never replace pencil, paper and books for reading and handwriting. Nor, indeed, can they replace a teacher. A machine cannot help a child develop the higher-order thinking skills so necessary in today's employment stakes.

If we are not to degenerate further into a nation of dunderheads, we must ensure that each child leaves school with the basic skills of literacy and communication. Too much money has already been wasted in providing schools with technology that has contributed little to raising standards or equipping children with the skills they require.

Very serious thought should be given to such a grandiose plan as a laptop for all pupils. Investing in more teachers and cutting class sizes will have a greater impact on standards than the proliferation of laptops in the classroom.

Christine Oldfield is an examiner and moderator.

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