Excuse me, my computer wants a chat

Douglas Blane

Glasgow children have been testing one of the new breed of handheld computers. Douglas Blane reports on how well they have been accepted

Computer technology is normally driven by greater complexity and sophistication but once in a while a breakthrough occurs by making something simpler. An example is the RISC chip which brought supercomputer power to the humble workstation by pruning the instructions that its microprocessors could respond to.

A more topical instance is the new breed of handheld computers, such as the HP Jornada. By drastically slimming the operating system the designers have created a combined electronic jotter, reference library, productivity aid and communication device which children can carry around and use for learning anytime, anywhere.

And just as the RISC chip's reduced functions were offset by huge gains in speed, so the loss of some capability in the handheld computers has been more than compensated by their quick reactions which encourage children to use them continually. This makes the computers a partner in learning and a spur to creativity, even if images cannot be imported into the word processor or graphs drawn from the spreadsheet.

"If youngsters have to sit and stare at a useless computer screen for ages every time they want to use it, many of them won't bother. Not with this type of machine," says Isobel Taggart, assistant head at Notre Dame High School in Glasgow.

Pupils at this and three other schools in the city- All Saints Secondary, Cleveden Secondary and St Mary's Primary - have been testing HP Jornadas for the past year and particular benefits were reported when an entire year group was issued with them. Loss, theft or damage was unexpectedly low throughout.

During an end-of-year progress meeting, teachers frequently mentioned how communicative the computers are. They will "talk" to anything and anybody: to desktops PCs, to each other, to the Internet and to their users, reminding them perhaps to get out of bed or do their homework.

"Kids love being able to press a button on their computer as they stroll up to a printer, then chat to their friends while it prints off the work they've been doing. It's cool," says Gerry Murphy, the religious education teacher at Notre Dame High.

He is delighted with the project work his year two pupils have produced. He says: "It's very rewarding getting this quality of work from them. The computers are great at motivating them, putting them in control and encouraging independent learning."

Many teachers were worried that tension would arise between preparing children for exams in which they must use pen and paper and getting the full educational benefit from using the computers in class. "It's something the Scottish Qualifications Authority will have to think about if they don't want us stuck in the Dark Ages," comments one of them.

But the computers' ability to send files to their neighbours, which is so valuable in the classroom, where it can support collaborative writing and research projects, is the facility that makes use of them in exams so problematic.

Heidi Fawcett, headteacher at St Mary's Primary, sees benefits in extending their use to every subject. "One of the problems we've always had is making sure a history teacher teaching report writing, say, is aware of how an English teacher does it. Getting constancy across the curriculum in what we ask of the children will be an important benefit,"she says.

Neil McDonald, Glasgow's information and communications technology co-ordinator for secondary schools, says the next stage of the project will include more schools, encompass special educational needs - where pupils will no longer be singled out by a requirement for computer support because all their colleagues will have one too - and integrate the handheld computers with the city-wide education network. Methods of evaluating the project will be developed from this term.

Pupils at Notre Dame School for Girls will demonstrate their use of the HP Jornada in Learning Without Wires, September 20, 2.30pm

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Douglas Blane

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