Tight budgets have for many years resulted in pupils sharing resources such as textbooks and equipment in practical subjects. It's also not uncommon to see two or more pupils working together on a single PC, particularly when accessing modern media, such as CD-Roms and the Internet. But those pupils had to work on the same task.
Until now, that is. Sharedware, a company based in Bradford, has exploited the multi-tasking capabilities of Windows 95 and developed a new product called Sharedware.
This allows two users to share the facilities of a single PC and its peripherals. You simply connect an additional monitor, keyboard and mouse - effectively giving you a new PC at a fraction of the cost.
An expansion card is placed in the back of the host computer, with a lead of up to 30 feet to an interface box into which the second user's monitor, keyboard and mouse connects.
The result of adding a second workstation is that everything that both users previously did working on separate PCs can now be undertaken on one computer. For example, one pupil might be working on a spreadsheet while the other is preparing a report in a word processor.
Away from the classroom, imagine sitting at home entering data in a database while your off-spring are using the latest multimedia CD-Rom - on the same processor.
You can even independently browse the Web at the same time, using the same modem and Internet connection, reducing costs considerably.
At first sight, Sharedware may seem to be designed for standalone PCs, but connect the host machine to a network and both users can log on independently as if they were on separate machines.
When tested, it worked well on a Novell network, but with Microsoft Windows NT both users were given supervisor rights, a problem which Sharedware says it has overcome with a software upgrade.
When using CD-Roms, there is a slight drawback to the new product: the technology doesn't at present support sound, so the second user can interact with a multimedia CD, but will not be able to hear any audio elements. Plans are being made to add sound into a future version of Sharedware.
Tests on various PCs show beyond doubt that this product is an ideal way to increase the computer-to-pupil ratio at a fraction of the cost. It's even possible to use old monitors, keyboards and mice that in many schools may be stored in a cupboard as spares.
Software licensing is always an issue, and particularly so if you add Sharedware to a machine. Careful inspection of licenses will be needed to ensure that the license is "per machine", otherwise a second copy of the software will be needed for the second user. In theory, per machine means that any number of users can access the software.
Several PC manufacturers have already developed packages encompassing Sharedware as standard, and more are making the change. RM is currently considering offering it with its own products. For many, though, the product is seen as a threat in reducing the number of PC sales they make.
Even so, many schools will be able to benefit from Sharedware in the ASDA Computer Challenge, for which Action Computer Supplies will be providing Viglen PCs fitted with Sharedware.
Its acceptance in schools is spreading, with many ICT advisers recommending it to schools. John Hull, head of Buttershaw Upper School in Bradford, has held a conference inviting other colleagues in neighbouring schools to visit his installations to see at first hand what benefits the product can bring.
Mr Hull says: "Sharedware offers extremely good value for money. For very little extra on the price of a new system, we can have two computers, more than adequate in specification for school use. Sharedware certainly offers us value and enables us to increase our computer-to-pupil ratio."
Sharedware will undoubtedly have repercussions for the PC manufacturers, but for schools it should be a positive move, increasing the availability of modern technology in schools.
The manufacturers will either have to embrace the product whole-heartedly or reduce the cost of their machines to be competitive. Either way, it looks hopeful that schools can benefit from this British innovation.
Sharedware Ltd. 30 Caroline Street, Saltaire, Shipley. BD18 4PN; 01274 401010. Fax: 01274 200311. Website: www.sharedware.com.