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Pick your portable

LEARNING ZONE: PORTABLES IN ACTION BBC2, Wednesdays, 4.30am, repeated every week, November 22 to December 13

Serious insomniacs, deprived of the opportunity to dream, must rely instead on all-night television. Fortunately, the schedulers are kind, and nothing broadcast in the wee small hours is likely to cause undue alarm, pose awkward questions or raise hackles unnecessarily. This new series from the National Council for Educational Technology (NCET), broadcast within the Learning Zone night-time education service, is no exception.

Portables in Action draws on the findings of the NCET's Pounds 2.5m investigation into whether portable computers, in the form of palmtops, laptops, personal organisers and suchlike, could be used successfully in schools. Watch the programme and you'll be left in no doubt as to the answer: computers are the best thing to have happened in education since chalk.

But then, in the course of the 30 minutes no one mentioned the annoying way batteries run down just when you need them most or had a hard luck story to tell of hardware going on the blink.

It would have been useful to see how teachers set about organising lessons when all or nearly all the pupils have portables. For instance, do children have to share a single printer? Do they get bored in the queue? By ignoring the problems posed by portables (and presumably some teachers must have encountered some), the programme seemed less like a documentary and more like a promo.

It succeeds in conveying that the portable is far more versatile than the desktop PC. There are filmed reports of children not only using them in classrooms and labs but also taking them on surveys in a supermarket, an airport and a field study centre. They're used, it seems, across the age range from nursery schools to sixth forms where children routinely take them home to put in extra writing practice.

It was a particular joy to see disabled pupils at the Lancasterian School in Manchester exploiting the technology for all it's worth. For some, the smaller keys of the notebook are easier to manipulate than the standard PC keyboard. For others, who are unable to manage pen and paper, the laptop computer means they can take notes in lectures just as easily as their peers. Thus the whole world of mainstream education is made that little bit more accessible for them.

Of course, sundry teachers were paraded in front of the camera to give testimony ("how did we ever live without them?") and one academic confirmed that children who used computers in their study of graphs had a better understanding of graphs than a parallel group that didn't have access to computers.

It's something, I suppose, but until NCET can broadcast research evidence that information technology is equally effective in other areas of the curriculum, the sceptics are likely to remain unconvinced. The programme is well worth watching, so remember to set your video or, alternatively, equip every child in school with a portable that should guarantee a sleepless night.

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