Small wonders of the modern world

Chris Johnston

Devices that are smaller than laptops but just as useful are starting to gain ground. Chris Johnston examines the progress

Many education experts say that laptop computers are not the answer to pupils' technology needs. While laptops offer portability, they are still heavy, expensive and fragile. Neither do personal digital assistants (PDAs) such as Palm Pilots or Pocket PCs seem to offer the answer for education. But two new devices could offer hope to schools looking for more cost-effective ways of giving students personal access to technology.

One is the netBook from Psion, the British company famous for its PDAs. Now that Psion is withdrawing from that market, the success of new products like this is vital. netBooks have been successfully trialled in the Lambeth Education Action Zone in south London, where they helped to raise pupils' literacy and numeracy standards. Both teachers and students liked the compact and robust design, which can be used instantly when opened. They are also cheaper and lighter than laptops and have an eight-hour battery life.

Now the Hackney EAZ has purchased 70 netBooks for 9 to 10-year-olds at Princes May School, where English is often a second language. The devices will be used for word processing to help pupils improve their literacy skills.

Psion will also supply thousands of devices to the pilot phase of an "e-school" project in Malaysia. Eight thousand secondary students and 1,300 teachers from 50 schools will receive a netBook for the experiment. Malaysia wants to leapfrog the deskbound networking approach of other countries and go straight to mobile networking.

Textbooks and curriculum materials are being made available in digital form and if the pilot is successful, textbooks could be replaced by "e-books" for Malaysia's five million teachers and pupils by 2004.

While the Psion is similar to a conventional laptop, the new Simputer is something quite different. Billed as a low-cost alternative to PCs, the handheld device was devised by the Indian Institute of Science and Bangalore's Encore Software, to bring the benefits of IT to the nation's millions of very poor rural citizens. Professor Vijay Chandru, one of the inventors, said the inspiration was the transistor radio that became popular in Indian villages in the Seventies.

The Simputer is unique as users do not have to be literate. Those who do not understand an icon can touch it and hear an explanation in either English, Tamil, Hindi or Kannada. "It is extremely user-friendly," Professor Chandru said.

The charitable Simputer Trust will licence the design to manufacturers and the first units are expected in March next year at a cost of about 9000 rupees (pound;130). Even at that price it will be too expensive for millions of Indians, so the inventors hope that village schools, shopkeepers or postmen will loan the devices to individuals.

It can handle multiple users through a "smart card" feature, which stores personal information, and can be connected to the Internet.

The inventors imagine that the Simputer will be used for applications as diverse as micro-banking and storing agricultural data, as well as for education - perhaps in Britain as well as schools in India.

It runs on just three AAA batteries, yet has 32 megabytes of memory and a large 320mm by 240 mm screen.

Psion www.psion.comSimputer

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Chris Johnston

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