Dreaming of a computer for every child

They will be thinking the unthinkable at the BETT 97 educational technology show. The 18,000 anticipated visitors at the National Hall at Olympia, London - the show opens next Wednesday and runs until Saturday - will be able to tease themselves with the revolutionary notion that schools will no longer need to stock up on expensive software or buy fancy multimedia machines to run it on. When they bandy the initials NC, they won't be referring to the national curriculum but the long-awaited network computer.

Xemplar (a joint marketing venture by Acorn and Apple) will be unveiling the first network computer for sale in the UK. Built around Acorn's StrongARM processor, it is a robust little box that plugs into an ordinary television set. It doesn't have a hard disc or disc drives as it automatically downloads whatever applications (called "applets") that a user might want directly from the Internet or an intranet.

The PC manufacturers are doggedly refusing to be impressed. They argue that the network computer simply doesn't have the versatility of a multimedia machine, and that users will be reluctant to entrust their data to a server in some remote corner of cyberspace. But the new machine may be just what schools need. It's cheap and easy to operate. What's more, it transfers the expense of maintaining and upgrading software to the service provider. So it should - in theory, at least - be obsoletion-proof.Such is the stuff that dreams are made on.

The Bett show is a great place for dreams - and for nightmares. For some schools - especially in the least affluent areas - it's an annual reminder that they are falling hopelessly behind in the race to equip the classrooms of tomorrow. According to the Advisory Unit for Computers in Education, the UK outshines the other G7 (leading industrialised) countries in the provision of educational information technology (IT).

Indeed Bett will attract delegates from around the world eager to capitalise on our pre-eminence in creating educational software and implementing IT in the curriculum. What they won't see as they glance admiringly at the 350 stands, is the gaping chasm that separates the best equipped schools from the vast majority of others where staff are under-resource d, under-trained, and understandably underwhelmed by the hullabaloo at Olympia.

The show will have an impressive programme of seminars and workshops that embrace the use of new technology in school management and almost the whole of the curriculum. But the sad truth is that the evangelists at Bett will be preaching to the converted. The teachers who really need to be convinced, and who are in dire need of training, won't have been given the time or the encouragement to travel to Olympia. These teachers know that the success of IT in education ultimately lies not in the hands of the enthusiasts who congregrate at BETT or the product developers but of the politicians.

They will want more than pipe-dreams and wish-lists from Gillian Shephard,the Secretary of State for Education and Employment (who is opening the show), and David Blunkett, the Opposition spokesman who will be speaking on Thursday (see page 8). They might promise "IT for All", the new slogan from the Department of Trade and Industry (see page 9) or "a computer for every child" (New Labour, New Technology). But teachers will also want them to outline coherent strategies for extending the use of computers in the classroom - and an unequivocal commitment to provide the funds that will make it possible.

In the meantime, schools will have to make the best of the equipment they have in stock, often a motley menagerie of white elephants, dodos, lame ducks and - as Microsoft has recognised - dinosaurs. The company's stand is going to feature an assortment of these prehistoric beasts. They will be there to publicise The Natural History Museum's impressive Internet site, but primarily to draw attention to Microsoft' s new network system for schools that will enable ancient 286s as well as Apple Macs to run the latestWindows software.

"Only connect" could be adopted as the slogan for this year's show in which there will be one recurring theme: it isn't the hardware that is important but the network that serves it. RM and Xemplar, in their ruthless attempts to encroach on one another's traditional territory, both offer network systems that will accommodate the opposition's machines. But,as has become abundantly clear over the last year or so, local networks are only part of the story. The one network that really matters is the fabled network of networks: the much-lauded and much-maligned Internet.

It is significant that although this is its first appearance at BETT, the Cable Communications Association will have one of the biggest stands and will take over sponsorship of the popular Net@Bett area. It's a clear signal that, despite any deals Tony Blair might have made with BT, the cable operators have seen the vast potential of the educational market. They will offer visitors the opportunity to surf the Net and will try to persuade them that cable is the most economic way of providing whole classes with access to the information superhighway, a road down which all schools now seem obliged to travel.

Of course, Xemplar will insist that its new Internet products will make the journey irresistible and that the new network computer offers full access at half the price of standard PCs. Several service providers will be out to recruit new members. RM will launch a new premium service which will give subscribers access to a comprehensive on-line reference library, and a host of other companies will be highlighting their presence on the Web. Even The TES will announce that its new weekly electronic edition will be available on the cyberspace news-stands along with a host of other facilities.

The rise and rise of the Internet, with its reservoir of free resources, is inevitably going to pose a real challenge to British software houses. They are also in competition with attractively priced American products. Nick Tate, the chief executive of the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority (Wednesday's guest speaker), has already expressed concern both about the quality of some imported packages and of children being overexposed to "American spelling, expressions and cultural references". But a software industry geared specifically to British education can only flourish if schools have sufficient funds to worry more about content than cost. Indeed, it's a wonder that so many small companies, such as the Cambridge Software House, which is launching a massive multimedia study of King Arthur at this year's show, have managed to sustain such consistently high standards.

To justify its cost, a package must not only be outstandingly good, but also provide a stimulus for productive work away from the keyboard. Several companies are marketing support materials to help teachers make the most of the software they have. Tag Developments, for instance, will offer worksheets, templates and teachers' notes to accompany a range of popular Broderbund titles.

Turnkey systems - computers with pre-loaded software - feature strongly. RM is adding to its successful Window Box range with Window Box 6. And Xemplar has joined forces with some of the best British software houses to produce nine school curriculum resource packs.

This year's BETT, of course, is going to be crucial for Xemplar. The company will be keen to prove to the sceptical that the unlikely marriage of Acorn and Apple was, in fact, made in heaven. And that there really is more to life than Windows 95.

The happy couple will be showing off the StrongARM upgrade processor that is said to make the Risc PC "faster than any Pentium". But perhaps the most exciting product on the Xemplar stand will be the eMate 300 - a stylish "clamshell" laptop that exploits the revolutionary technology of Apple's Newton. As well as being able to use its keyboard, pupils can use a stylus to hand-write or draw directly on to the screen. Machines can "zap" data using infra-red technology, like a TV handset, or can be linked to computers running any of the popular operating systems.

As always in this cut-throat industry, there is competition. Microsoft will be giving the first British demonstration of a Casio palmtop that could be ideal for pupils familiar with PCs as it is loaded with a scaled-down version of Windows. If schools only had the money, either of these palm-tops -or indeed the NC - could turn promises of a computer for every child and IT for all into a reality. Dream on.

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