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Lapping up knowledge

They gave 1,000 teachers laptops to test how long it took them to become proficient. Roger Frost reports on a Pounds 5m project

If you want teachers to make effective use of information technology, give them a laptop. This is the conclusion, succinctly put, of an independent study of more than 1,000 teachers who were given a free multimedia laptop computer last year.

The hand-out was part of the Department for Education and Employment's Multimedia Portables pilot project, now in its second year. Two teachers in each of 575 schools were given one of four laptop systems, each different to enable them to be compared. The scheme is estimated to have cost around Pounds 5 million.

An evaluation team, led by Professor Colin Harrison at the University of Nottingham, measured their progress with interviews and detailed questionnaires. Its highly positive report, released this week, holds important messages about improving teachers' use of IT.

For example, they measured the teachers' confidence and competence at the start of the project finding that 34 per cent rated themselves low in confidence, with a third rating themselves as high and a third middling. Only two terms later, 77 per cent were rating themselves as high.

Similarly, 45 per cent initially rated their competence as low, but the figure soon dropped to 5 per cent, with only one teacher using the lowest score possible. As a result 63 per cent felt highly competent, a substantial increase from an initial 20 per cent.

The authors argue that these overall figures underestimate some aspects of the teachers' gains. They add that one of the reasons for teacher's success was that they had "ownership" and exclusive use of a machine over a long period. Interviews suggested that this encouraged them to invest time in learning the systems. Another reason was the portability of the machines. Not only did this lead to many extra hours of use at home, but also, when teachers needed support, they could take the machine to a colleague.

Nearly all of the teachers made successful use of word-processing, printers and the bundle of CD-Roms included with the machines - the figures here are all in the hot nineties. Overall, the top three software packages were Microsoft Works, Microsoft Publisher and World Book Encyclopaedia. Below these, teachers used a variety of applications according to their needs - different subject teachers had their CD-Rom favourites while spreadsheet work, desktop publishing, and drawing all scored highly - between 55 and 70 per cent reported successful use.

As all the machines were Internet-ready, they could plug into a telephone point and connect up. Some 76 per cent of the teachers used the Web, 62 per cent used e-mail and, intriguingly, one teacher reported forming a "close personal relationship" through e-mail. Uses for more meaningful school affairs included visiting education chat areas, finding work for lessons, and letting colleagues and pupils have a go too. Half used the Net to download software - a fairly high figure for what is arguably a high-level activity.

While teachers' use of the Internet increased throughout the project, some had problems in connecting, using passwords and getting technical support. The subscribers to America On-Line, a big Internet provider, were connected with fewer hitches. But some problems were less technical - such as finding a phone point or getting one installed. Some headteachers promised to install a phone point but these never appeared.

Compared with the more established applications, it took longer for teachers to become accustomed to the Net, or see the value of the new medium. Secondary school teachers mostly fared better than primary colleagues in using the Internet for teaching - hinting strongly that some schools and teachers themselves are not "Internet-ready".

Much of the support teachers received was informal and came from staff or project partners on-site. Secondary teachers seem to have more colleagues to turn to. In some cases, the reaction was negative, with heads reneging on initial offers to provide release, phone lines or the budget to run them.

The report stresses that it was teachers' confidence that fed their activity while their attitude and motivation were greater factors in them achieving highly.

Of the four machines, the leading brand, Toshiba, and the "C1Leo", a budget brand, scored more use than the Akhter and Macintosh portables. These differences are clouded because each machine was given to different subject teachers.

Andre Wagstaff at the National Council for Educational Technology, which managed the project, explains that the machines had different specifications. In particular, the Macintoshes requested by some teachers had no CD-Rom drive because no suitable drive was available at the time.

Any reading of the Nottingham report shows the project as very successful - leading many to wonder when the DFEE is going to give away some more. Some would say that the National Lottery odds are better, as both pilot projects were funded by money from the end of the financial year. However, Andre Wagstaff wants to see local action, "We now have a measured and sober report that gives heads, governors and IT co-ordinators advice on the sorts of machines they might provide to achieve tangible benefits."

A summary of the report will be available soon. This, and a by-product - the evaluation reports of 450 CD-Rom titles - will appear on the NCET Internet information site.

CONTACTS: * NCET: 01203 416994

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