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If you've got it use it

Don't be too hasty in buying the latest ICT kit, says Alastair Wells. Consider your school's needs and make the most of what you've already got

The IT world is obsessed with the latest, fastest and flashiest hardware and software. No sooner have you got the biggest and the best when along comes something that is even better. It's an attitude that can infect education, so that teachers feel that if they're not using the most up-to-date computers and software - they're somehow not getting the best out of ICT.

There's no doubt that some of the new stuff coming on to the market is exciting, but we have to keep a sense of balance and ensure we don't ditch great educational hardware and software in our quest for the latest thing.

It's wrong to assume that you can simply throw out the old, bring in the new and that everything will work.

A lot of teachers get wrapped up with the idea of acquiring the latest piece of ICT without first asking: "Why do I need this?" And more importantly, they don't consider the resources they've already got. In other words, there's no proper and effective audit of their ICT provision or needs. The cost of the training required to use the hardware and the time needed to create new worksheets and other classroom materials for new software will add up to, as a rule of thumb, roughly two-and-a-half times the initial cost.

Another important factor that tends to get forgotten when making new ICT purchases is compatibility with your existing set-up. If you buy a new piece of hardware, for instance, can you transfer files easily between it and your existing computers? There's a lot to be said about going back to basics and using applications that can be used across all platforms. There are lots of platforms and operating systems out there - laptops, handhelds, PCs and Apple Macs. Forget about compatibility and you'll waste your pupils' time and energy as they transfer files from one platform to another.

Many things in life follow fashions and trends and the educational ICT market is no different. We started out using CAL (Computer Assisted Learning) applications that were largely written by teachers to meet the needs of the classroom. These programs were drill-and-skill, practice-and-rehearse type applications, but they had the benefit of allowing teachers to demonstrate things that couldn't be done in the classroom. We then moved to a period of using content-free applications like databases and spreadsheets, followed by multimedia software such as interactive video and CD-Roms. Then we jumped on to the net and it was all about interactive websites and assessing pupils with services like the BBC's Bytesize. Now we've come full circle and are moving back to CAL-type applications. It's like the old joke about not throwing your old clothes away because one day they'll become fashionable again.

In our school we're still using old Acorn computers, along with Macs and PCs. People were saying "You've got to get a multimedia PC with the latest Pentium chip," but we didn't want to throw away all the great programs we'd used over the years. So we use a Citrix system with a server that can talk to different operating systems. As a result, one computer can run BBC, Acorn, Apple and PC software. It also means we can use really old computers - machines that businesses are throwing away. We can expand our hardware base and we don't have to change our schemes of work.

Another reason for sticking with older software is that it's often more user-friendly: instead of getting hung up on how to use the application, you can focus on thecontent and the learning outcome. Software from companies such as Kudlian and Softease is ideal for primary schools, but equally useful for secondary students. The databases are colourful and fast to use, and that's especially important for inexperienced pupils and teachers.

Schools also need to invest in a lot of in-house support so that high-level users of ICT can support low-level users. Teachers need time to reflect on what went right and what didn't go so well in a lesson where ICT was used.

Teachers who are inexperienced in using ICT need to have access to support, and you can't get this type of help through a managed service.

It's ironic that the weaker links often get left out when it comes to ICT support. All too often it's the IT reps in departments and the power users of ICT who get the most in-service training time. Remember, it's only when all of the staff are empowered through the use of ICT that all pupils have the potential to benefit from this technology.

Alastair Wells, head of ICT at The Netherhall School in Cambridge and a Becta ICT in Practice Award winner, was talking to George Cole

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