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A teaching strategy in the lap of the gods;Hardware

Portable machines may be good tools for spreading computer skills. But, says Angela McFarlane, there's little will to achieve this

There will never be enough money from the Treasury to provide every child with personal access to a computer. With a UK school population of nine million children, the numbers speak for themselves. The proposed spend of pound;1 billion over four years on computers and training is nonetheless impressive. And, if used wisely, every school in the country should get wired to the Web, with all teachers having access to curriculum-oriented ICT training.

However, there is still an on-going problem: computer access for each child. One of the most successful evaluations of ICT's impact on learning was the portables pilot schemes run by the then National Council for Educational Technology (NCET). These provided portables for teachers and pupils at up to 600 schools over six years.

The effect on teaching and learning was measurable and impressive - use of ICT improved in 98 per cent of teachers given a portable, according to a 19967 study. Children were able to reach for a computer to support their learning in the same way they reach for a textbook - at home as well as school, in some cases.

The portables approach, then, is a proven and effective agent for the change policymakers want in the use of ICT in schools. But initiating change is easy compared with sustaining it, and there are no signs of a follow-up evaluation of the portables pilots to see if the changes have been sustained.

Sadly, in three schools I contacted, the portables are history. They proved their worth but, when they died a natural death, the schools could not justify the expense of replacing them. In the case of the two primaries, there was no money for new computers at all, and the secondary bought desktops despite its head of department's protestations. In the secondary, there was a view that portables were not robust or cheap enough compared with desktop machines.

But do we need full desktop equivalent portables in schools? The answer is, probably not - or, at least, not for every child. If the school has the money to provide the additional functionality, it would be enough for pupils to have a personal machine to provide access to good generic applications, provided they were also able to connect to the school network for printing or online access when necessary. Such machines do exist, are robust and offer the functionality. Some, like DreamWriter and the Xemplar Pocket Book, meet all the basic application needs.

But if schools invest in the expensive infrastructure, like network capacity (bandwidth), who's going to buy the portables? Well, how about parents?

Parents know the value of a computer to their children's education. Many may be willing to spend the pound;300-pound;600 for a portable, but is anybody asking them?

Before pupils start coming to school with personal computers, it is even more important that teachers have one. The value of this is beyond question. But the NOF monies for staff development cannot be spent on portables. Computers are not seen as an essential requisite for the job.

A mechanic can claim tax relief on the purchase of overalls. A teacher cannot do the same for a computer.

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