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Hands-on experience

Carolyn O'Grady visits a school where palmtops are used for almost everything

Every morning, when pupils at Llandogo Primary School in Monmouthshire sit down at their desks, the first thing they do, before even reaching for their pens, is get out their palmtop computers and place them on their desks. These small hand-held devices have become indispensable. In fact, asked what the class does with them, teaching head Jon Murphy replies:

"What don't we do with them? They are used in literally every lesson except, sometimes, art."

Children write with them, illustrate their work with them, input their pulse rates in PE with them, produce spreadsheets and graphs with them, and record the growth of plants in the school's organic garden with them. They use palmtops for self-assessment, and all their homework is done on them.

With the aid of the infra-red beaming facility, Jon Murphy sends a writing frame to a few pupils who beam it to others and "within seconds it is all round the class - much cheaper and less time-consuming than photocopying," he says. Beaming has become a way of life with pupils routinely sending work to each other as well as their teacher.

With children free to explore different ways of using palmtops, a curriculum target which calls for the creative use of ICT is continually met, says Jon Murphy. New ways of using the devices are emerging all the time. For example, some children recently started to use the memo voice facility to record information.

He had also found that skills learned on the handhelds were easily transferable to the PCs in the school and were enhancing what they were doing on the PCs.

Palmtops became essential at Llandogo school about two years ago. Stuart Ball, Monmouthshire LEA's ICT co-ordinator, was looking at ways of increasing pupil access to ICT. Laptops were too expensive and programmable computers not sophisticated enough. He wanted a device that was portable, had a keyboard, had Word and Excel compatibility and a graphics program and was robust enough for young children.

What he found was the Psion 5 MX. At pound;195 it was "fairly affordable", he says. "For the cost of two tablet PCs, for example, we've kitted out a whole class."

Next he looked for a school to try them out in and chose Llandogo, a 118-pupil village primary school in the Wye Valley, on the Welsh border.

The school saw ICT as part of everyday life, had a committed head and was willing to spend some of its own money. Thirty palmtops were issued in July 2001, 20 to Year 6 children in Jon Murphy's class and the rest to staff.

The children were told they would be working with them when they came back in September.

The result, says Jon Murphy, has exceeded all expectations. The devices are widely used. For example, as part of a reading exercise, children will research a topic on the internet, recording information under given headings, such as the habitat, food and life span of British animals. This develops their research, reading and writing skills.

Jon Murphy says: "Boys are now much less reluctant to engage in reading and writing activities. Using handhelds motivates and engages them." It doesn't seem to deter girls either.

In another lesson, pupils might be asked to record their hand spans using the spreadsheet program and calculate the average.

In PE, pupils have been asked to take each other's pulses before and after exercise. The results are entered on spreadsheets and graphs produced. All this can be done while pupils are still out on the games area the school shares with the community. They also take them into the school garden to find if there is a relationship between growth, rainfall and sun and to draw plants and vegetables.

Children have been producing a poetry anthology and are designing the cover, experimenting with borders and drawing their own pictures or importing them from clip art. Teacher Kathy Lowe says printing was a problem at first but now some children have developed expertise.

As an aid to self-assessment she has found the palmtops unequalled. "The children can so quickly interpret their results," she says. Nearly every day pupils pop the results of, say, spelling or multiplication table tests on to a spreadsheet and produce a graph to see how they are doing.

Later Kathy Lowe might ask them to find out which test has the worst average in the whole class and may then repeat it. "They love doing it and it means they're ace hot on times tables," she says.

Often children make further use of their palmtops than asked. As we talked, a pupil came up to say excitedly that she had, of her own volition, compared the average test results of boys and girls and found them to be "exactly the same to three decimal points".

Palmtops are routinely taken home for set projects with parents. One pupil, Hannah, described how she was keeping a food diary at school and at home and comparing it with a recommended healthy diet. "Eventually I will see how close I am to being healthy," she said. Children are teaching parents how to draw self-portraits and Jon Murphy plans to produce a poster which he will send to them.

Recently the school has given two pupils email via their handhelds, which involved buying additional modems. This experiment is in its early stages, but is just one more feature Stuart Ball and Jon Murphy want to explore.

Stuart Ball says: "For primary schools especially, palmtops offer something that really works in the classroom. They are a tool that can be used for most everyday tasks: writing, reading, research, drawing, maths, data collections and data manipulation. When they want to do something more sophisticated, like visual manipulation, they can go to a PC."

However, there is a problem. Psion is discontinuing the 5 MX and similar models. Companies are moving towards more sophisticated devices, sometimes with a built-in mobile phone, which are often extremely powerful - perhaps unnecessarily so for primary schools - and therefore more expensive.

But Stuart Ball is not deterred. This is a hugely competitive area and new models are emerging all the time. For education, and primary in particular, it appears that there is a need for a fairly simple, inexpensive, robust device with a keyboard.

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