"I have never seen the pupils so engaged and engrossed," said a teacher from Warren Comprehensive School in Barking and Dagenham, accompanying her AS art students on a tour of Dulwich Picture Gallery.
As the elegant new website for the Dulwich Picture Gallery says, it is "a very special place - small and intimate". Whenever you visit, the gallery is humming with activity, in the multi-purpose Linbury Room or the new Sackler Centre for Arts Education, wrapped ingeniously around the back of the original Dulwich College.
The education department guides thousands of visitors each year into the marvels of Old Master art. Artists go out to schools as well as working with adults and schools in the gallery; there are also family and specialist events. Now, how ever, the gallery has branched out into a new kind of hand-holding through a sponsored technology project.
This time, visitors' hands are holding something unusual. Approached by art teacher Ellie Burkett of Warren School, which is part of the DfES-funded ICT Testbed Project, Sarah Longair from the gallery came up with DiGIT - Digital Gallery Interactive, working with sixth-formers with interactive palmtops.
Sarah and Ellie hooked up with local software company StreetAccess to come up with a product that would grab the attention of art students and stimulate drawing in their sketchbooks. There are two strands - portraits and conflict in art.
Each strand has three stages - preview, trail and review - and at each stage the progress of the visit can be logged and fed back to school and home computers. No more scrappy bits of paper or gnomic comments in sketchbooks that don't make much sense a week later. One of the sixth-formers commented that it was "actually easier doing work on the hand-held than on pieces of paper".
In this way, the process of forming opinions and developing ideas becomes apparent to student and teacher and can be shared along the way. It is easy to underestimate the complexity of thinking, data gathering and trial and error that are involved when looking at a piece of art. With individual programming, each student's response can be recorded on to their home computer and, crucially, altered on reflection.
Multiple-choice questions help to nudge them into seeing how complex a painting may be, and to wonder about the feelings of, for example, the protagonists in Poussin's "Rinaldo and Armida". Where students may have missed out on a dialogue with an encouraging gallery educator, the program has skilfully absorbed this persona into its structured sets of queries, so that students can go, or stop, at their own pace.
Feedback from Year 12 students on their first visit to the gallery was enthusiastic: "You would never have got that much work out of me if I hadn't had this," said one girl.
"This is like face-to-face teaching but with computers," a teacher commented. "There was none of the usual chitchat, except to exchange comments on how great the palmtop computers were."
With more funding (the Moose Foundation for the Arts has helped so far) the gallery hopes to extend this approach to other key stages and art subjects.
Palmtops don't come cheap but DiGIT looks like a very effective way to slow down visitors and make them look and think a bit harder.
* Tel: Sarah Longair 020 8299 8731 Email: s.longair@dulwichpicturegallery. org.uk