Michael Clark, 12, has just spent three weeks in a sealed room in the isolation ward of the Royal London Hospital's leukemia unit following a bone marrow transplant. Most children who have to endure what must seem like an eternity alone do so with only books, a personal stereo and perhaps a television to while away the time. But Michael has been lucky - he has had a computer with Internet access.
The machine was installed in the hospital by Express Link-Up, a charity created in January last year to provide hospitalised and disabled children with the technology to let them learn, play and communicate.
The driving force behind the venture is Pat Ryan, a former management consultant who has spent six years raising money to install information and communications technology (ICT)equipment inchildren's hospitals.
The initial difficulty, she explains, was finding a way of providing Internet access that prevented junk email reaching young patients and restricted them to a list of approved websites. The breakthrough was obtaining approval to use the National Health Service's intranet, NHSnet.
In less than two years, Express Link-Up has equipped 22 hospitals from Glasgow to Southampton. It aims to reach 80 per cent of Britain's sick and disabled children by the end of 2000 by installing at least one computer linked to the NHSnet for every four children in each hospital and hospice. Those not on the intranet will be able to participate with Internet access provided by Digicol.
Ryan says many children in hospital fear losing touch with their school friends, but being able to use email allows them to send messages to other pupils as well as their teacher. Email is not just a social tool, as a growing number of pupils in hospital are using it to correspond with their teachers and continue studying. Andrew Moyssi, 16, continued his GCSE studies while in St Batholomew's Hospital, London, by receiving and sending schoolwork via email. This type of link is important to patients, as hospital teachers do not have enough time to give them muchpersonal attention.
Ryan says the charity has also started a literacy programme to ensure that children who are often in and out of hospital, and therefore miss a lot of school, still have the chance to develop good literacy skills. "We're buying literacy software so that the children can just sit and learn to read in front of the PCs," she explains.
Express Link-Up also wants to install video-conferencing facilities in isolation units so that patients can talk to each other and their families. This would also allow hospital teachers to conduct classes without going through the 20-minute "scrub" needed to eliminate possible sources of infection before entering the sterile area.
Video-conferencing could also make the return to school less traumatic for burns victims, Ryan says. "Children who are burned change visually and they don't want to go back to school. Video-conferencing will let them talk to their friends, who can see what's wrong so that when they go back it won't be such a shock."
upport for Express Link-Up has come from many different quarters: from the volunteers with ICT expertise who set up and maintain the computers in the wards, to stars such as Andrew Lloyd Webber and John Travolta, who has donated items that have been auctioned to raise funds to buy equipment.
The European Community and the National School Board of America have both expressed interest in replicating the initiative. The project is yet to receive any public funding, however. Ryan says she has twice applied unsuccessfully for National Lottery funding, but plans to try again so that two people can be employed full-time to sort out equipment problems in hospitals.
Troubleshooters would make life easier for hospital teachers, many of whom have little experience with computers and are often taught about ICT by their students. Michael Clark is one. He resisted all attempts to get him to use a PC until he was told that Newcastle United - home to his beloved Alan Shearer - had a website.
Improving hospital teachers' knowledge of and confidence with computers is the aim of a project by Present, formerly the National Association for the Education of Sick Children. It has set up a Cyber Centre in east London to train 250 teachers of sick children to use computers so that their patients can continue learning while they are absent from school.
Carolyn Skilling, director of Present, says there are more than 100,000 sick children at any one time in Britain.They miss out on 10 million hours of education a year, but she says access totechnology could cut this figure significantly.
Hospital teachers will not be eligible for ICT training paid for by National Lottery funding, so the charity hopes to be able to fill the void for some. AOL, an Internet provider, will subsidise the cost of training the first 100 teachers. Afurther 25 will then be trained as trainers themselves to create a support network.
Present aims to train teachers as wellas children to use technology for collaborative activities. Skilling, a former deputy director of education in Birmingham, points to a project requiring pupils to devise a strategy to improve magazine sales as an example of how this can work.
As well as developing different skills, the projects will get children communicating with their peers about topics other than their pets and favourite footballers. "Kids don't naturally talk to children they don't know," Skilling says. "It's very difficult to simulate the social environment of school, but IT can help."
Technology-based learning is ideal for sick children in hospital or at home as it can be accessed at any time and provides rich information resources. The economics also make sense, Skilling says. "Rather than going to a child's house, teachers could communicate with students about their work on the phone or via email. It could save local authorities an incredible amount of money. "
With the growth of ventures such as Express Link-Up, sick children will be able to more easily stay in touch with their schools and keep studying. Even confirmed Luddites would approve.
Express Link Up www.express-link-up.org 0181 941 0102
Present www.sickchildren.org.uk 0181 980 8523