Any time, anywhere

10th October 1997 at 01:00
A project whereby pupils have 24-hour access to laptops has been greeted with great enthusiasm in the US. Hugh John reports

To thirty- and fortysomethings in Britain the phrase "Any time, Anywhere" could forever, and distressingly, be connected in their televisual psyche to a naff advert for Martini. To educationists in Australia and the United States, however, it is more likely to be associated with an exciting project to provide pupils and teachers with laptop computers to which they have 24-hour access.

Anytime Anywhere Learning is a scheme first introduced in Australia seven years ago and which has, for the past 18 months, been running in 52 American schools - 42 of them public and 10 private. Originally, a number of Australian schools piloted the scheme which, through parental contribution, provided laptops for students. Microsoft personnel and a team of 10 educationists went to study what happened. The company's initial reaction was that the Australian model, developed exclusively in the private sector, was not applicable to an American education system that embraces such a diversity of social backgrounds The educationists, however, were adamant that the project could and should be imported to the US.

And the project has indeed been received with great enthusiasm by the 8,000 teachers and students taking part; nowhere more so than at Mott Hall School in District Six, Upper Manhattan, New York. It is in a part of Harlem where the poverty rate is well over 90 per cent. The school has the highest number of bilingual students in the state, in fact one of the highest proportions in the country. Fortunately, the school's principal, Dr Mirian Acosta-Sing, regards information technology as one of the essential, "lifelong skills and competencies that children need to acquire . . . Parents know how important technology is. They know that the workforce is going to demand all of our students to be knowledgeable and have thesecompetencies."

Students at Mott Hall, using Microsoft Office software and Toshiba laptops, are creating projects on sophisticated programs - PowerPoint, Excel and Word - and presenting them in class using multimedia aids such as overhead projectors. It's this fusing of technology and creativity which has so impressed Anthony Amato, a superintendent (education officer) in District Six. "They're thinking of things that we would never think of because not only do they have the tools of an adult but they have the unfettered creativity of the child. When you put those two together, stand aside, because magic is going to happen."

Parents also feel more engaged in the learning process: some have attended laptop classes and are optimistic that their newly acquired skills will enhance their own job prospects; others have seen their children grow in self-esteem as they become adept at using unfamiliar technologies. There is another reason why parents are involved: money. As Tammy Morrison, program manager in Microsoft's Education Unit, says, with compelling bluntness: "Once their pocket book is attached to that laptop, parents want to know what their kids are doing in school."

Toshiba and Microsoft provide their products at substantial discounts but, at Mott Hall, the cost of the laptops is borne jointly by parents and school. Each pays Pounds 20 monthly and, in three years, the computer becomes the property of the family. After two years, children and parents have the option of, what the US computer industry euphemistically, almost poetically, refers to as "refreshing the technology". That is, they can trade in their laptop for a newer model. In fact the Australian experience has been that children keep their computers for as long as seven years.

Insurance is included in the financial package. The laptops are fully insured against "mysterious loss and damage", but parents are expected to cover the first Pounds 150 of any claim. Sociologists might note that generally there have been more problems with non-payment of instalments and losses of computers in the private sector. In the US and Australia the highest claims on insurance policies have been in private schools. There has not, to date, been a single default by a parent at Mott Hall School.

There are, however, reservations in the educational community at the increasing use of computers, not all of which can be ascribed to technophobia or the siren call of yesteryear and a return to a "chalk and talk" teaching. Janice Gordon, a teacher at Mott Hall, expresses a concern which many will have had when confronting IT. "When I first heard of the program I was a bit frightened. I thought that I can't let technology overrun the classroom. " After working with her class on various multimedia projects, she views the scheme far more positively: "For a child to have access to a computer 100 per cent of the time means that child will be able to choose when he or she wants to use it and choice is so important. The ability to make a decision is one of the best gifts that you can give a child."

Does the ownership of laptops drive a further societal wedge between the haves and the have-nots? Apparently not. Unlike some IT projects, where only a proportion of children and families are selected, it is a prerequisite of the "Anytime Anywhere Learning" scheme that every child in a participating class has a laptop. The so-called "equity issue" is diminished, rather than exacerbated, when whole classes have access to computers for the whole of the time.

"Are you just teaching children to be automatons who can march into a professional workplace, or are they actually learning?" was the main concern of Elizabeth King, who heads Microsoft's Education Unit. What about basic skills such as handwriting, spelling and arithmetic? Accordingly, the scheme is not being deployed below grade 5 (ages 1011) - by which time it is hoped that these skills would have already been established - and handwriting is an integral part of each multimedia assignment.

Although there has, as yet, been no completed qualitative study of the scheme, three main educational benefits seem to be emerging. First, the focus on critical thinking is increasing. Because the mundane task of information gathering has been made easier, teachers are finding that children spend more time on analysis and synthesis. Second, there is more co-operation between students. While one might have expected a class of wired-in, isolated individuals, this has not proved to be the case. The "laptop classroom" is a loud, dynamic collaborative environment. And this, in turn, gives the teacher more time to assist children who need special help and attention.

It could be that Anytime Anywhere Learning is an idea whose time and technology has arrived. Previous schemes to equip pupils with laptop computers have foundered not on the enthusiasm and willingness of the teaching profession nor any conceptual weakness but on such prosaic technicalities as the short and unhappy life of batteries and the inherent constructional weakness of portable machines - it took Australian teachers six years to find a laptop bag robust enough to withstand the rigours of school life. Now, with stronger machines, longer-lasting batteries and infra-red connections that allow computers to transfer files without any physical contact, we might just be on the verge of an exciting new development in education.

Tammy Morrison certainly thinks so: "Over the past year we've witnessed dramatic transformations in the way students learn and teachers teach . . . When you walk into these classrooms you cannot deny that there are amazing things happening.

* Microsoft is planning to run "Anytime Anywhere Learning" in Britain. An announcement is expected shortly * Elizabeth King will be speaking at the BETT 98 technology show in January

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