Small, but perfectly formed

Roger Frost

Palmtops could be a low-cost way of giving every child use of a computer for home study Roger Frost reports on a success story.

There's another revolution, quieter than Windows 95. It's that vision where each child has and uses a computer. They write, calculate and draw graphs on them, even take them home to work on.

No, it's not a big tease, more a tiny tease about tiny palmtop computers. At Our Lady's Grammar School in Newry, Northern Ireland, the staff and a whole year group use Pocket Book computers from Acorn. And they have just bought another batch for their new intake, making 280 computers in all.

An important factor is that the Pocket Book costs just over Pounds 200. Yet it has a well-featured word processor, a spreadsheet and does graphs. It's smaller than a paperback book and runs for months on two AA batteries. It has all the features of a diary with address book, world map and lighting-up times.

Acorn has already sold 17,000 Pocket Books its version of the Psion Series 3a. Psion, which markets the Series 3a everywhere but education, will probably sell its millionth by Christmas. Acorn has tweaked its machine for schools by re-working the manual, removing the password and adding a graphics calculator program to plot equations.

Some people liken using a desktop computer to having a full meal, and using a notebook to having a TV supper. The palmtop, they say, lets you snack where you are. Ann Gillespie, information technology co-ordinator at Our Lady's, feels size is a key feature. "It's their portability and the battery life that we really like," she explains. "You ask a question in class and before you know it, the children have their Pocket Books ready and working. It's ideal for the little ones who can put it in a bag or pocket, whereas I'm sure we'd get complaints from parents about the weight of a notebook computer."

Reports from the National Council for Educational Technology say palmtops afford children privacy when they write and therefore might encourage creative rather than safe work. And while you'd expect small screens to hinder collaboration, the NCET reported that children discussed their work more.

Ann Gillespie says that at first the children would take the palmtops home but couldn't get their hands on them because mum and dad wanted to have a go. But now IT skills are developing: "The children have become totally responsible for them they exchange ideas on how to do things like use the spreadsheet, save files and use the printer."

Owning a computer helps develop IT skills. Lord Grey School in Milton Keynes, is testing whether ownership of a Pounds 200 computer is realistic by asking Year 7 parents if they would buy one for their children. The school is aware this is a sensitive issue and says it might run a loan system if parents cannot afford or choose not to buy a computer. A questionnaire to gauge first reactions produced an extremely positive response.

As one of the schools in the Pocket Book trials, Lord Grey has run projects with the staff as well as pupils. In one example, pupils were asked to prepare a record of achievement on the palmtops and they could take their efforts home and involve their parents. They have collected enough experience to feel this is not a toy, gimmick or passing phase.

However, there are technical issues over the use of palmtops: like how they link with other IT in the school (they connect to Acorns, Macs and PCs) how easy it is to print work or use it for desktop publishing on bigger machines. New software from Psion enables the Pocket Book to copy work to, and print with, a Windows computer, closing the weakest link between the Pocket Book and the PC.

The software comes with a cable which connects the two computers. You run a program similar to Windows File Manager which brings up the file names from your Pocket Book. If you then click twice on say, a document, it launches your Windows word to bring up your work, complete with headings, fonts and formatting. The same smart trick works with files from the spreadsheet, diary and even the built-in voice recorder. You just tell the Psion program that you use Works, Excel, Lotus Organizer or whatever and in future your files are converted automatically.

After that, everything seems straightforward. You can make back-up copies in a click. And you can print from the palmtop through your desktop computer to any printer: laser, colour or plain vanilla. It is that easy.

Acorn has announced special offers of Class and Year Packs which are available as catalogue items. You can order them, with free bundled extras, in tens or in hundreds. There's a thousand in the School Pack so we've actually reached the stage where they are selling computers by the kilo!

Bulk buyers can entertain the idea of a custom-made palmtop. It's not as affectatious as it might at first sound: Pocket Books in a school's colours would be harder for thieves to dispose of than a basic, mass-produced machine.

You can add a fax-modem, which lets you send electronic mail and faxes. Soon you'll be able to connect to the mobile phone network. Here is a technology which has its evangelists. Acorn has a no-obligation two-month trial where you can keep the loan machine if you buy a Class Pack.

Some people find desktop computers too intimidating or notebooks too heavy and expensive, and the claimed battery life, they say, is bluntly dishonest. Many will be impressed by the machine's memory capacity - even the basic 256K Pocket Book can store a diary, 40 pages of writing and a substantial address book. Those with greater memory needs will go for Acorn's newer 1-megabyte Pocket Book.

When sane people commit their lives to a few grams of manganese battery you have to ask why. Some reply that they'd really prefer a notebook computer with a colour screen. Others say the palmtop is just right. And more so now. The memory-hungry Windows 95 has overnight put pounds on the price of a notebook computer for a while, it is pushing notebooks a little further out of reach.

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