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Seonag MacKinnon reports on a computer that is improving the lives of many pupils

One of the surprise spin-offs from a special school's major investment in portable computers is the development of social skills. Headteacher Maggie Pollard of Richmond Park, Oatlands, in the Gorbals area of Glasgow, says: "Maybe nobody in the street usually plays with the wee boy in a wheelchair, but when he brings out his eMate suddenly everyone is interested."

Even special needs children in families that have low expectations of them can suddenly find themselves the centre of attention when aunties and cousins descend to see the new technology. It is music to the child's ears to hear the question: "How on earth do you do that?" and to hear himself able to reply, "Oh you do this, then this."

Possession and skill on the Apple eMate 300s seems to boost children's self-esteem and their interest, which drives the learning process forward. The children say they like the green plastic eMate with its sturdy carrying handle because it is theirs, has their name on it and can be taken home. They also see it as a fun way to do work and a rare opportunity to do something better than able-bodied brothers and sisters at home can.

One withdrawn child, who came to Richmond Park from a mainstream school where he had been truanting, has made significant progress. Within a few weeks he was bringing in long, imaginative stories he had written at home. Teacher Christine Talbot says: "If we had asked him to do homework of six pages of writing, he probably wouldn't have done it. But he didn't see this as work. It was liberating for him."

Children who have cerebral palsy, for whom writing six words on a piece of paper might take an hour and then might not even be fully legible, are excited by the results they can get in a short time by using a computer with a special finger guard.

Children also seem to like the fact that they don't have to crouch over the machine or otherwise work at an awkward height - sometimes it is not possible to adjust computer trolleys to suit wheelchairs. Infra-red connections, which allow them to beam information or artwork to another eMate in a straight line from them, are fun as well as a way for children to collaborate in the making of stories. Teachers can also set up a story and beam it across the table to a pupil. Built-in applications include a word processor, spreadsheets, a drawing package, a spellchecker, a graphic calculator and on-screen help.

The eMate is neater than a standard lap-top, has rounded corners, weighs only four pounds, can be carried as easily as a lunchbox, fits into a backpack, seems robust and has a 28-hour rechargeable battery. It has neither hard disc nor disc drive, and can be plugged into the teacher's computer or the network and "tanked up" with files for that pupil. The child is allowed to take the eMate home, carry out the appropriate exercises and run the answers into the teacher's computer the next day.

Based on Apple Newton technology, the eMate can be operated with a pen, can tidy up handwriting and saves information automatically. Staff say that it is easy to use. The big desktop computers with their colour screens seem not to have been overused in the four to eight weeks since the portables were progressively introduced, even though they have no colour. Staff stress, however, that eMates cannot replace the large computers. The mobile learning machine is just providing a different, extra service.

Ms Pollard says she would wholeheartedly recommend their introduction in all schools and not just for special schools pupils. For one thing, they can help relieve staff of the problem of having to push larger machines along corridors and up stairs. Individual machines can be purchased from Pounds 450, but Ms Pollard's advice to heads would be to buy a minimum of eight for Primary 4, then another eight-pack the following year for P5, and so on until they spread through the school. She recommends not sending staff on training courses, although she concedes this would be a quicker and more efficient way to introduce the new technology. She feels that: "It is a more enriching learning experience if children and teachers open the wrapping and learn together. "

Ms Pollard dismisses the argument of those who are less enthusiastic about computers in schools, that children who sit in front of a television screen for most of the evening do not need to sit in front of a computer screen during the day. "I ask them whether they would rather the children watched telly at home or sit in front of a portable writing a story. This is a good news story for education. It is one of the most powerful tools we have for learning."

In Richmond Park, the computer is not something that is bolted on to the end of the lesson, when children have some time to fill. Ms Pollard says that the big PC is, in any case, the most misused piece of equipment in schools. "Headteachers buy a PC with 20 pieces of software in a package with a red bow on top. It's just an animated blackboard, it's not something creative." In buying these portables, Ms Pollard says she is doing no more than following the Government's declared ambition of "a lap-top in every lap".

Asked about the risk of damage or theft if sending mobile equipment home, Ms Pollard says: "If they spill hot chocolate on it, or a jealous sibling damages it, that is a minor problem. I don't have a problem with that" She told teachers not to worry about the cost of the equipment. "I don't know how much it costs. It's not an issue. Once you see it as the absolute right of children to have this as we move towards the millennium, then it is easy to go out there and get the money."

Fundraising went half-way towards meeting the cost of buying four packs of eight at Pounds 3,200 a pack. Richmond Park also frees money by buying fewer textbooks and no jotters. Asked whether eMates could be just a novelty that will wear off, teacher Donna Baillie says there is no sign of that yet. A colleague asked a child who seemed to be using her machine endlessly, whether the eMate wasn't tired. "It may be, but I'm not," she replied.

* Xemplar hotline: 01223 724200

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