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Hang Ups

There's something strangely attractive about the world once it has been safely filtered through the lens of a camcorder. Playback through the miles of tape you've recorded and you'll see that all things are bright and beautiful. Life is a cheerful, if shaky, stream of Christmas mornings, happy birthdays and forgotten unforgettable holiday venues. Such smiles! Such bonhomie!

The camera, like Prozac, can make anything seem a little pleasanter than it really is. And people, once they've overcome their initial giggles and bashful waves, can always be relied upon to give of their best. I remember, for instance, a group of GCSE pupils being assessed for their "oral" grade. For two years they'd sat tight-lipped. As much as an exchange of grunts, by their standards, amounted to reckless badinage. Then, one day, I pointed a camera at them, and instantly they made Sarah Dunant, Peter Ustinov and Ben Elton seem positively Trappist. Donkeys in the parish have limped ever since.

It's wise, then, to treat the things you see and hear on video with caution. I've just been watching one entitled Northfield Academy A Success Story? Needless to say, the question mark is redundant. In it, staff and pupils at this secondary school in Aberdeen sing the praises of SuccessMaker. This is the "integrated learning system" (ILS) which I wrote about last week.

I make no apology for returning to the subject: everybody involved in education should be taking it seriously. It is either going to prove the high-tech damp squib of the decade, or is going to revolutionise the way the 3Rs are taught in British schools.

SuccessMaker, which occupies a dozen CD-Roms, enables pupils to progress through a carefully-structured programme of self-contained lessons. Sophisticated management software monitors the pupils, determines which exercise each child should do next, and presents detailed analyses of each pupil's strengths and weaknesses. Most importantly, none of this requires any intervention on the part of the teacher.

It's easy to ignore the evidence of researchers, professors of education, marketing whiz-kids and educational consultants (what are they?). But when you hear endorsements from teachers and pupils who use the system every day, you can't help but be impressed. Even taking into consideration that everything in a video will always appear better than it really is, the contributors to Northfield Academy - A Success Story? are very convincing.

The teachers describe how children using the package are better motivated and how much easier it is to ensure differentiation within mixed-ability classes. One teacher also noted that the quieter pupils, who don't like to bother the teacher, gained particularly from being able to interact with a computer. Rather than undermine their role, the staff saw ILS as a useful classroom support. One explained how it took over many of the necessary but tedious aspects of the job assessment, for instance freeing teachers to get on with real teaching.

The pupils are particularly articulate. They appreciate having an intense one-to-one relationship with a machine that is always patient, is never away sick, doesn't shout and "doesn't go away to help someone else because he's got his hand up".

They're getting to be so good at maths, they wouldn't have any diffulty with this little sum. Add Pounds 5,800 + Pounds 13,900 + Pounds 2,500 + Pounds 1,000. Those are the prices of, respectively, the management software, courseware (for only 10 workstations), on-site training and on-going support.

If your calculator hasn't already fallen from your stricken fingers, add to this the cost of 10 486SX computers with 8MB of Ram and sound card, graphics card, 80 MB hard disc and CD-Rom drive. You could video the answer to that sum from every possible angle, but I'm afraid, even through the viewfinder of a camcorder, it isn't going to look anything but grim.

SuccessMaker is marketed by RM, New Mill House, 183 Milton Park, Abingdon, Oxon OX14 4SE

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