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Rebates for teachers to buy their own machines are only the start, says Richard Pietrasik

ON NOVEMBER 22, Peter Peacock, the Deputy Minister for Children and Education, announced the Scottish Computers for Teachers Scheme under which teachers can apply for a cash sum of pound;200 if they buy a computer.

In the first instance 1,500 teachers will be able to claim the rebate. The Scottish Council for Educational Technology is running the scheme and will use this pilot phase to eradicate any problems.

The teachers will be chosen to form an equitable spread across the 32 education authorities. Those unsuccessful in this phase of the scheme will have opportunities in future phases, which will run until 2002.

The commitment of the Government, at both Westminster and Edinburgh, to develop the use of information and communications technology in education depends on teachers being able to use the technology as an integral part of their practice.

With the present expenditure of considerable amounts of money equipping schools with computer technology and training teachers, nothing will have greater effect on the success of all these initiatives than teachers having access to computers and the internet at home.

How will the scheme work? The time for applications for the pilot phase is already over: they had to be in by yesterday (December 9). Successful applicants will soon be notified and will then have until the end of January to claim their rebate. Teachers may buy a Mac or a PC - a desktop machine or a laptop - so long as the minimum specification is met.

Having access to a computer at home will have a great effect in developing teachers' expertise in ICT. Of course it will also support the New Opportunities Fund training, funded by the Lottery, which is now starting to be delivered. We are hoping many teachers who have not owned a computer before will be encouraged to get one through this scheme.

We originally intended to offer specific machines to teachers at a subsidised price, but things move fast in this business. In the time it took to organise the deal our prices were being undercut in the shops.

In the end we have chosen a straight rebate, allowing teachers to get the best deal they can.

We were also concerned that those getting this rebate would be liable for tax and National Insurance. To avoid teachers having to go through a bureaucratic rigmarole, these will be paid by the Scottish Executive. The teachers will not have to pay anything or have to declare it in their tax return.

Already we reckon that almost half of all teachers have a computer at home.

No doubt some will be using it to its full potential for both work and leisure, others just dabbling a little, writing the occasional official letter or worksheet, while many will probably hardly ever touch the machine, leaving it to be used by their partner or children.

The Government initiated National Grid for Learning will reach its potential when teachers are using ICT as an integral part of their practice - preparing materials, accessing resources from the Internet, using e-mail. Already some school students are e-mailing their homework to their teacher. How long before this becomes the common method? Not so far fetched when you view the rapid adoption of e-mail in business.

The original concerns about social exclusion, with many school students coming from homes without computers or the internet, are still there. But they can be alleviated by offering free access in libraries, community centres and, of course, schools.

Home access will also increase through games machines (the new Sega Dreamcast already has this) and digital television.

One of the sectors in teaching that is already making great use of the technology is special educational needs. Computers are increasingly being used to support students with a variety of such needs.

But the SEN teachers are also using the communication potential of the internet to great effect in accessing and sharing information. There may not be another child in the district with a particular disability, but via the net a teacher can access other professionals worldwide who have experience and expertise with that child's needs.

So what is the potential? It will be through its adoption and development by confident teachers that this powerful technology will become a reality in ways we cannot yet imagine.

When we have communities of teachers representing different sectors and disciplines accessing and exchanging materials, resources and ideas, its full potential will be realised. Teachers will take ownership, using the technology as an integral part of their practice, engaging and inspiring their students.

Richard Pietrasik is chief executive of the Scottish Council for Educational Technology. For further information, contact Heidi Eckert at SCET on 0141 337 5033.

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