Registration: Putting the classroom on-line

Computers are great for managing information - provided you can gain access to one. But schools are big places and if your classroom is miles from the nearest PC, the information might as well be locked away in a safe.

Imagine you could take data from your PC and use it almost anywhere around the school. What is more, you could edit or manipulate the data, and put the modified files back into the PC. This is what Microsoft's new Windows CE (compact edition) system lets you do. It's basically a cut-down version of Windows 95, so if you can use that system, you'll have few problems getting to grips with Windows CE.

Many companies, including Philips, Compaq, Casio and Hewlett Packard, are planning the launch of a new generation of portable computers called hand-held PCs (see panel) which will use the compact-edition system. As will another new player in the market: Bromcom's Model-HPC.

Bromcom is best known for its EARS (Electronic Attendance Recording System) registration system which uses an A4-sized electronic pad and an array of wireless transmitterreceivers dotted around a school, which link the pad to the school's office computer. Since its launch in 1993, the system has been re-named wNet (Wireless Network) and, in addition to its registration function, now offers an electronic grade book, e-mail, a pager and an alarm.

Bromcom's Model-HPC is A4-sized, whereas most HPCs will be palm-sized units: "We did some customer research which showed that most teachers prefer a larger computer - it's less attractive to thieves for one thing," says Ali Guryel, Bromcom's managing director. "We are not planning to compete with conventional HPCs." This helps explain why Philips, which is supplying the microchips for Bromcom, has used the same chip in the Model-HPC as in its own HPC, and why Microsoft has licensed Bromcom to use Windows CE technology.

So what will Model-HPC offer teachers? In addition to the standard wNet features (such as electronic registration), teachers will be able to use a number of Windows CE packages, including Pocket Word (for word processing), Pocket Excel (a spreadsheet) and Pocket Internet Explorer, although the latter will require an optional modem connection. This will allow users to explore the Internet, send and receive e-mail, and also use internal (school or authority) networks called intranets. These use Internet-type technology on a private network, for example, a number of local schools linked to a local authority's system.

"Our system will allow teachers to have everything in their hand," claims Ali Guryel. "It means that general productivity tools could be used almost anywhere in the school." He adds that Windows CE is likely to encourage all teachers across the curriculum to use information technology, as the tools will be literally at their fingertips.

But if you're itching to get out and use a Model-HPC, you will be disappointed. Bromcom and Microsoft formally announced Windows CE for wNet and Bromcom unveiled a prototype Model-HPC at Holland Park School in west London on Tuesday. A pilot programme using Model-HPCs will be held at the school this autumn. The company aims to have production models on show at the BETT 98 education technology show at Olympia in January.

A wireless version of Model-HPC will cost around #163;495, and a standalone version will sell for around #163;445. Users will be able to upgrade the latter with a wireless module costing around #163;50.

Bromcom Tel: 0181 461 3737

Casio Tel: 0181 450 9131

Compaq Tel: 0990 134456

Hewlett Packard Tel 01344 369222

LG Electronics Tel: 01753 500400

What is wnet? This system has several basic components: an office computer - usually a high-powered PC, printer, power cut-off protection and software. The wireless network is built into the walls and other parts of the school building, providing a network of radio transmitterreceivers to carry data around the school.

Instead of using paper register or grade books, teachers carry a computer folder, an A4-sized electronic pad, which can be used to record attendance or to act as a grade book. The teacher keys in a personal identification number code to log on to the system and then keys in a group number. A list of the pupils in the relevant class is transmitted to the teacher's folder and checked,using the absentpresent keys. After registration, the folder automatically transmits the data to the office and updates the school's attendance database.

Hand-held PCs: The new laptops

The first hand-held PC products running Windows CE (compact edition) should arrive in Britain this summer. These will be small enough to fit into your pocket and yet powerful enough for computing on the

move. Teachers could use an HPC around school or at home: most models will run for many hours on two AA-sized alkaline batteries - between 20 and 70 hours.

HPCs are supplied with several built-in programs, including Pocket Microsoft Word, Pocket Microsoft Excel and Pocket Internet Explorer. Many other compact-edition programs are also being developed. You operate an HPC with a keyboard or pointing device, notwith a mouse or hand-writing recognition software such as Apple's Newton (although some third-party companies are developing handwriting software for HPCs).

Philips's Velo 1 has a built-in modem for sending and receiving data down a telephone line. To transfer data between the Velo 1 and a PC, you slip the device into a small docking station, and off you go. Other HPC models include Hewlett Packard's Palmtop PC, which has a wide, 80-column display, Casio's Cassiopeia and LG Electronics' GP40M.

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