Laptop equality

Debbie Davies

Every student should have his or her own laptop. This may be the logical conclusion of a national curriculum that includes technology in every subject, but teachers are far more likely to be stuck with classes in which only some students have them. In spite of stellar state spending on computers, the most likely providers will be parents, and some pupils will have a laptop well before others.

So while schools struggle with communal computer suites, how are these advance-guard students managing?

It seems that having a few students in any class with their own laptops leaves teachers struggling with two conflicting demands and a chain reaction that is vastly underestimated. In practical terms, it means complications such as calling for "screens down" at the same time as "pens down".

The photocopier is no longer the best way to distribute lesson plans and homework to all your students. "It is like childbirth, in that once you opt for intervention over a natural birth, a whole set of reactions follows on from that original decision," says Chris Warren, a director of Actis, a consultancy publishing online learning resources. To use Mr Warren's analogy, teachers taking mixed classes - some pupils using a laptop, others not - are overseeing intervention and natural childbirth at the same time. Then there are logistics. "Power supply, where to sit bulky laptops on desks, and not least networking machines in classrooms, are generally not properly thought through," he says.

In addition to all this is the social context of integrating a few students with laptops into the class. Peter, a Year 10 student at an Oxfordshire secondary school, was recently given a laptop by Education Rewards, a leasing company that provides thousands of machines to teachers and students. The laptop is slim and portable and works well, but Peter has never taken it to school. Just as new washing machines made refugees objects of abuse on Glasgow's Sighthill estate earlier this year, Peter feared a laptop would strain his relationships with his peers.

So the laptop stays at home. Peter's friends lend him computer games but his teachers have no subject software for him. He cannot access the internet, where educational software increasingly resides, as his family has no home phone line.

Putting every student in front of the glow of technology is clearly not enough. "We have to get back to teacher expertise," says Mr Warren. He believes the learning context should guide the application. For example, he suggests using computers as an aid to skim-reading for an essay on the relationship between two characters in a novel which the student has already read in full.

"A computer can instantly search, find and colour-code references to characters or certain words in a digital copy of a novel," says Mr Warren. One student can research and prepare the annotated text, which then becomes a resource for the whole class.

Mr Warren has plenty of suggestions for using computers in learning, many of them based on his experience as a former English teacher and his knowledge of the functions of word-processing programs, for example, that most of us never explore. But he is the first to admit that few teachers have such intimate technical knowledge and that each curriculum subject needs new teaching methodologies, based on the most appropriate types of software.

Until teachers have methodologies for teaching with and without computers, students such as Peter will continue to struggle.

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Debbie Davies

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