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Making the right choice;Management

Many schools are proving successful at using a mixed economy of computers, writes George Cole

Mark Twain once said that the only things certain in life were death and taxes. In the educational world, there are some who believe that the only certainty in information and communications technology (ICT) is the inexorable rise of the PC in the classroom. But this need not be the case.

Now that Acorn has pulled out of the educational market, schools may feel they are left standing at the crossroads faced with a difficult decision: do they travel down the PC path or opt for Apple?

The reality is that it need not be a case of one or the other, and that many schools are successfully using a mixed economy of computers. Some schools and authorities have decided to move from Acorn to PC, including Newham, which has around 70 primary and 13 secondary schools. It started the process three years ago, says Paul Whiteman, head of IT at Newham's education department: "We were amalgamating our schools administration and curriculum systems and, at the same time, a number of schools wanted to move to the PC. And some teachers were buying PCs for the home."

But there was some resistance to moving to the PC platform from Newham's primaries and so the education department embarked on a programme of staff training, and also demonstrated useful PC packages teachers could use in the classroom. The process has been gradual and although Newham still provides Acorns, no school has bought a new machine in the last two years.

But other schools and authorities are in danger of making the wrong decision for the wrong reasons. Ian Carter, head of IT at Cheltenham College, says: "Ask yourself: where are all the innovations coming from? What company is innovating and looking at education carefully? What company has launched an educational computer in the last two years? The answer is Apple (the e-Mate)."

Ian Carter adds that he is not anti-PC: "I'm not saying schools should have one or the other. There's no reason why both Apples and PCs can't run on the same network. The message isn't getting out there and the wrong people are making the recommendations on what computers schools should buy."

If any school could claim to be using a mix of computers, it is Netherhall School in Cambridgeshire. It has over 100 systems consisting of 60 Acorns, 20 Apples, 20 PCs and 20 Network Computers.

Alastair Wells, head of ICT, explained how the school ended up running such a diverse range of computers on a large school network: "There is huge demand for PCs because a lot of pupils have them at home. We chose Apple because it was the easiest platform to transfer to from Acorn, and we have Network Computers because we wanted to set up an international school community using the Internet."

Scotland has traditionally been a strong Apple area and Edinburgh, for example, has ordered 700 of the new iMac computers.

But some smaller authorities are migrating from Apple to PC, notes Phil Strange, former director of business development at the Scottish Council for Educational Technology (SCET). "It's being driven by IT reorganisation being handed over to corporate IT departments who are used to buying PCs." However, larger authorities are sticking with Apple and this makes good sense, he adds.

Phil Strange believes that the educational world should: "Stop looking at the washing machine and look at its results." Sound advice, but schools need to make crucial decisions about what computer hardware they buy. It is not a case of Apple good, PC bad, but more to do with schools keeping an open mind and basing their decisions on sound reasoning, rather than just following the crowd.

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