Enchanted spiders and cosmic blobs

Six thousand teachers recently gathered in San Diego. Merlin John and a British infant teacher were among them

Take two stone masons working with a block of granite and ask them what they're doing. One says: "I'm chipping stone." The other says: "I'm building a cathedral."

Infant teacher Liz Briggs quotes this example - used by keynote speaker Dewitt Jones - to illustrate the things she learned on a recent trip to America's biggest ICT convention. "Same activity, different perspective,"

she says. "Which life view do we want our children to have?"

Mrs Briggs, a teacher and subject leader from Hillshott infant school and nursery in Letchworth Garden City, Hertfordshire, was attending the annual National Educational Computing Conference (NECC), held this year in San Diego, California. She won the trip through the Clicker Classroom Award, a joint promotion by Crick Software and The TES, and found the philosophy as engaging as the technology on show.

"I was sitting among 6,000 teachers, listening to Dewitt Jones, who has taken some of the most amazing pictures that I have ever seen (for National Geographic magazine), telling us of his philosophy of life and work. It put the technology in its place, as part of a process rather than a solution."

Mrs Briggs was able to speak to Dewitt Jones after the event. "He seemed genuine; not 'the big star' in any way. And it was deeply rewarding that someone who is so well regarded worldwide confirmed that my school's approach - looking at the whole picture of each child rather than their individual tasks in isolation - is absolutely right."

At a show featuring all kinds of new technology, there was plenty for Mrs Briggs to see in California. Apple launched its new education iMac, identical to others in the range but at an appealing price of pound;543.83 (ex VAT), and featured the wide range of materials for iPods from the likes of McGraw Hill and Pearson. Whiteboard trends included widescreen (GTCO Ca* Comp and SMART) and integration with projectors (both Promethean and SMART). Promethean also launched Spanish language projects, a fitting debut as this was the first NECC with dual language presentations.

SMART demonstrated how handheld computers can be used with its whiteboards.

Present in force at NECC - with a range of UK experts, including leaders of pilot projects in Wolverhampton and Bradford - was distribution company Steljes. Not ready to openly claim leadership in the UK's handheld market, the company did concede that it is anxious to take the techno-pain out of handhelds for UK schools. Handheld Learning 2006 organiser Graham Brown-Martin was present, showing a prototype education handheld from Fujitsu Siemens, so this year's event (scheduled for London, October 12-13) will be worth a visit.

The NECC fielded its own stars too. The old multimedia favourite KidPix is back with a clever remodelling from Riverdeep, allowing presentations to be "podcast" using Apple's iTunes service. Visitors also singled out two other clever innovations, Cosmic Blobs, artistic creation with 3-D graphics, and the multi-player algebra game Tabula Digita.

Liz Briggs' personal favourite was "The Rainbow Web", a book containing interactive software by Block Publishing. A hardback fiction book about an enchanting spider weaving a multi-coloured web, it includes a CD with a complete thematic unit on spiders, teaching science through literacy and ICT. "There are some amazing child-centred games and activities which can be used individually or in groups using the interactive whiteboard," says Mrs Briggs, who's looking forward to using it as a basis for a whole-school curriculum week.

Testing was again an issue at NECC. The influence of the drive towards testing, generated by the United States' No Child Left Behind policy, was evident throughout seminars and across the exhibition floor. It was the only negative aspect of the show for Mrs Briggs. "I talked to US teachers and they shared my concerns about the danger of losing the picture of a whole child in the rush to test and assess at every opportunity."

Now with her feet firmly back on the classroom floor, how does she feel about the San Diego experience? "I had an amazing time. I met so many fascinating, enthusiastic people who have inspired me to widen my approach to teaching ICT both through different methods and the use of a variety of programs." She says she had "perfect hosts" including John and Ann Crick, "ensuring that my visit was truly enjoyable, thought provoking and unforgettable".

Liz Briggs:ejbriggs@hotmail.comCase studies from the CrickTES Clicker Awards can be found at

www.cricksoft.com www.iste.orgnecc www.handheldlearning.co.uk www.activboard.com www.smarttech.com www.gtcocalcomp.com www.apple.comwww.riverdeep.net www.cosm icblobs.com www.tabuladigita.com www.blockpub.com

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