Pundits predict great things if every teacher is provided with a laptop, but is the forecast quite so rosy? David Parry sounds a note of caution
Two months ago, the Press reported that Prime Minister Tony Blair had pledged that, by 2003, every teacher in Scotland would be the proud owner of a brand new laptop computer. Then there was speculation that a similar scheme could be set up in England and Wales, with the pound;400 million cost being spread over several years.
Such an initiative, which looks unlikely, recalls the "computer in every classroom" slogan of the Kenneth Baker years, resulting in that familiar sight in primary schools - the dusty and unloved BBC computer.
Moves to supply laptops to teachers are supported by a large-scale pilot study conducted by the British Educational Communications and Technology Agency (BECTA) in 1996-97, the results of which were published last year.
The report found that equipping teachers with multimedia laptops with Internet access was an astonishing success. It said: "A very high proportion (98 per cent) of teachers made effective use of their computers." The project, which involved 1,150 teachers in 575 schools, found that, by the end of the year, most teachers had improved in both their confidence and competence in ICT. Almost all were using their machines for word processing. By the end of the year, more than three quarters were engaged in Internet use and technically more challenging activities, such as spreadsheets.
The case studies show how motivated the teachers were to achieve success. They spent many hours of their own time getting to know the machines and learning how to use various pieces of software. "I had a lovely time in the summer holidays," said one, referring to the hours spent learning how to use the computer to improve aspects of her teaching.
Some found that mundane tasks were more enjoyable. While experimenting with record keeping on a spreadsheet, one teacher commented: "It's more fun doing it on a machine, I must admit."
The teachers were clearly conscious of themselves as a privileged few, a feeling strengthened by the jealousy they sometimes encountered. One teacher put this down to colleagues "not understanding the purposes of the project". Another was under pressure to make his machine available for general use by the school.
In fact, the report emphasises that the teachers' personal ownership of a laptop was a key factor in the project's success as it enabled "exclusive use over an extended period". This was very important for teachers with little knowledge of computers.
As they could bring the machines home, they were able to get their families to help, a strategy popular with female colleagues who made, in general, greater strides than their male counterparts.
On the face of it, the study appears to clearly demonstrate the value of supplying the entire teaching force with multimedia portable computers at a cost of about pound;1,000 a head. Yet as it spread the machines thinly among teachers in a large number of schools, rather than supplying a small number of schools with enough machines for the whole staff, it created a situation very different from the one that would arise were computers to arrive in bulk among the whole staff of a school.
Although the teachers were carefully selected to provide a range of ICT skills before the project started, the case studies reflect their sense of themselves as a "chosen few" with a strong moral urge to justify the project's generosity.
What happens when an entire staff is furnished with computers at a stroke? The experience of my former school, a medium-sized independent with 50 full-time staff, makes an interesting comparison. The systems were supplied to staff as the first step in a rolling plan to equip every pupil with a laptop. The teachers received the computers two terms before the first of the pupils, the aim being to boost their confidence and creativity by allowing free, unfettered personal access.
Soon after the computers arrived, the suppliers conducted a day's training. After that, it was left to individuals to familiarise themselves with the technology, and to individual departments to revise their schemes of work to take account of classrooms full of laptop-lugging 13-year-olds.
The training days were well organised, but gave a foretaste of what was to come. Very often, only the junior members of staff felt confident with the machines, and so training tended to turn the hierarchy of the school upside down. Some senior staff battled bravely with the unfamiliar systems, but others felt threatened and reverted to disruption or cynicism.
The BECTA teachers appear to have been grateful for their new toy. But in our school everyone received a computer, and the feeling of "closeness" which one detects in the Becta study was absent. Instead, there was the normal range of reactions to a major new curriculum initiative: some were enthusiastic; some had reservations but wanted to do their best; others were openly or covertly hostile.
Despite some cynicism, there were many instances of former computerphobes who put in hours of work during the holidays to master their new toys, and there were some striking "conversions" to the value of IT. In addition, some colleagues from outside the IT department found a new role as useful sources of help for less experienced colleagues. Other teachers worked with their partners or children to solve their problems.
As the months passed, it became clear that some colleagues were never going to use the machines voluntarily. This was a small group, but much larger than the 2 per cent of recidivists in the Becta study: perhaps 10 people out of the 50 who received machines.
A couple of terms into the project, with many colleagues becoming used to typing work into their computer, there was pressure from a section of staff to computerise the process of reporting to parents, a major termly task. The report forms were eventually reprinted on standard paper which could be used with a printer, but the more radical step of managing the task electronically encountered fierce opposition from senior staff and was scrapped.
After 18 months, computer use remained sporadic. Change was slow and not always easy. Our experience, in hindsight, matched commonsense expectations of what would happen to ICT skills: a small number of existing computer enthusiasts extended and developed their knowledge and became reliant on the machines; a larger number of formerly-hesitant colleagues conquered their fears and became regular users; a tail of refuseniks remained in the dark.
This outcome in no way invalidates the expenditure, but nor does it match the BECTA study's sparkling success with its sprinkling of privileged "guinea pigs" and its talk of 98 per cent success.
The experience of my former school suggests that the BECTA study should not be seen as an infallible prediction of what will happen if it becomes a reality.