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Go on, take a big byte;Computers for beginners

Every home should have one - that's the way for people to become confident about computers, says Chris Johnston. He also has a few suggestions for your shopping list

Only when the technology becomes part of teachers' lives will they fully appreciate how it can be used in the classroom.

For that reason many argue that the best way for teachers to learn about computers is to have one of their own. It is like learning to drive - you may start out in someone else's car but once you've mastered it you really want your own.

That is a view shared by Nigel Paine, chief executive of the Scottish Council for Educational Technology. "We will never get teachers on board with technology unless they own it themselves, " he says.

Pat McCarthy, headteacher at Eaglesfield school in Greenwich, south London, and project manager of a BT research project that last year investigated the use of computers in schools, says if teachers can play around with a machine at home, their confidence increases.

Fears about what to do if something goes wrong stops many from making better use of their school's resources. Having your own machine should mean you will learn how to use Windows, the operating software now used by most personal computers. More importantly, it makes available a huge amount of information and learning resources accessible on the Internet.

The ability to access up-to-the-minute information is a major incentive for having a home computer. Using pictures and data about a volcano erupting in Indonesia today might make it easier to capture students' imagination than relying on a textbook etching of Krakatoa blowing its top a century ago.

In business, computers make administrative tasks faster and less labour-intensive. They can reduce teachers' workload in a similar way, allowing them to be more efficient, to refresh and re-use material and be more on top of administration. But be prepared: your first attempts may not prove quicker. Practice will make perfect.

A web site that shows teachers how IT can help reduce the administrative burden can be found on


* Desktop or laptop? If you only want to use your computer at home, go for a desktop. Laptops are more expensive: a laptop's portability means you can take it to school, but it is more easily damaged or stolen.

* Windows PC or Apple?The Windows operating system might seem to have taken over the world, but the new iMac makes Apple competitive. But if your school only has Windows computers, it is sensible to buy one too.

* Which brand? Known names are usually more expensive. The main risk is whether the supplier will still be trading to honour the warranty and provide support.

* How much do I need to spend? Prices have fallen in the past few months and it is now possible to get an excellent desktop computer capable of doing everything most teachers would want, such as word processing and Internet access, for less than pound;600. (Ten machines costing pound;499 (ex VAT) are tested in February's 'Personal Computer World' magazine.) * What else do I need? It could be cheaper to opt for a package that includes a printer and scanner to copy pictures rather than buying them separately. You will also need a modem (at least 56k) to access the Internet and send and receive e-mail. If good software is included it saves buying it yourself afterwards.

* How powerful should it be?With processor speeds, memory and hard disk capacity, the higher the better. A 233Mhz processor, 32 megabytes of memory (RAM) and a three gigabyte hard drive is reasonable.

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