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Power to the pupil

Advances in computing hardware and software and the Internet and email, mean that teachers and pupils are sharing a refreshing enthusiasm for creativity. Stephen Heppell and other writers dig the new breed.

As head of physics at De'Lisle School in Loughborough, Mark Hitch devises ways to engage children's attention and has amassed a small armoury of technology to help. Talking at the BETT educational technology show, he reminded us that today's kids are spoiled by things that happen on screens: they go home to a visual feast of dazzling arcade games, computers and TV. For the VDU generation white chalk and a blackboard are no eye-candy, "but they'll watch a carrot if it's on a TV," he quipped.

The equipment is extensive though it is not particularly expensive - there's a device to capture video off tape and put it on to a hard disc; a Sony Mavica digital still camera and a video camera. The hub of it is a laptop replete with lessons, pictures and class records - all backed up by a CD-Rom writer which helps to save and transfer large video files from place to place.

Using the video capture device, he has amassed a small library of short videos that he uses to illustrate lessons. So instead of reaching for the chalk to explain balancing forces in physics, he shows a clip of a person free-falling from an aeroplane. And while this was exactly how schools television was meant to be used, having the clip closer to hand, ready for a mouse click is the soul of convenience: he can find, forward and rewind all sorts of material - a benefit that VHS video tape never really cracked. As he says, "It's workable and it's instant.'' What also makes this possible is a PC-to-TV converter - a computer add-on that shows the computer image on a large size TV. Being able to demonstrate things on a big screen is becoming the key need for class teaching and Hitch plans to link several screens together to make it more effective. This inexpensive (pound;100) type ofdevice quickly repays the cost when demonstrating software. And unlike a "great if you can afford it" data projector costing pound;3,000, no one will want to steal it.

If science lessons take shape as a demonstration followed by experiments and lab reports. Hitch adds in video to help kids grasp the ideas. In a lesson on energy a video camera records his demonstration of a steam engine connected to a generator. Pupils first gather round to discuss what is happening and then record on paper their ideas about what's happened. Later he plays back the tape but kills the sound. He quizzes the pupils - getting them to voice-over the essential points as the clip plays through.

The reinforcing effect of video is not a new idea, but here it's clearly working in its new setting on the computer. Video has become a feature in Hitch's teaching: next lesson, rather than say "remember what we did last time," Hitch might show the clip he recorded yesterday. Or, near the end of a lesson, pupils will be given one minute of camera time to show and summarise what they did - it's something that focuses the mind and it's good for revision too.

Likewise in a lesson on chemical reactions the pupils use the still camera to record each stage of the experiment - his Mavica camera stores the photos on a floppy disk so there's less hassle in getting the pictures to a computer network. The pupils then sequence the pictures and add notes using Microsoft PowerPoint, the slide presentation program. In another example, pupils used PowerPoint to create a project which was rich in pictures and diagrams. More notably, the project was about photosynthesis in leaves, it was animated and, more incredibly, it was interesting.

On his wish list is that someone else will set out to turn rich film archives on shelves into something that more people can run with. For him, creativity can't be held back.

Roger Frost is a science and ICT consultant

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