An Apple a day keeps the technicians away;Opinion

8th January 1999 at 00:00
Schools might have joined the drift to the Windows PC but, in Ian Carter's experience, the Mac is more reliable and better suited to the needs of education.

AM beginning to wonder whether I have lost the plot. Everyone tells me I am using the wrong machines and the wrong software, and I see schools throwing away their old BBCs and Macintoshes with all those worksheets which have been refined and tested over many years.

Those little software gems that have turned darkness into light for many children are being ditched for a spanking new state-of-the-art PC suite with the four Microsoft musketeers - Word, Excel PowerPoint and Access.

Why? Invariably the responses are: industry standards; jobsworth; big discounts. The concepts of teacher confidence and learning opportunities are rarely considered; the T of the acronym ICT (information and communications technology) dominates.

I don't want to get into arguments about industry standards because they simply don't exist; we should be setting our own learning goals rather than blindly following nebulous standards designed for a completely different environment, ie business.

If we applied industry software to designing a new car, it would probably have four steering wheels, three gear- sticks, two accelerators and no brakes - oh, and an on-board wizard to explain each incredibly complex feature.

Unfortunately, power, limitations, obscurity, centralised control and job security are gifts from industry that taint ICT in education; common sense is endangered. This trend will continue as experts from industry are employed to help schools sort out their networks and join the National Grid for Learning - or is it the National Grid for Earning?

Someone should mount a campaign to provide simple, elegant solutions so that teachers and pupils can participate confidently in using new technologies for learning. This is why I have stuck with Apple through thick and thin - because Apple and its machines have always tried to work with, rather than against, users.

By current accounts, our predominantly Macintosh network should be extinct and our ability to meet the needs of the school and curriculum gasping its last breath. However, at Cheltenham College, we have PCs using our Macintosh servers and even 10-year-old Macintoshes using our NT server, both mammals and dinosaurs living side by side. All our resources are gainfully employed meeting educational and administrative needs. It's as simple as this - we have more trouble running a 30-station Windows NT network in the maths department than the 250 stations on the mainly Mac distributed network throughout the school.

As a biology teacher with some ICT skills, I have learnt that the simplest solution to a technology problem is usually the best. My philosophy boils down to: l is my solution simple and easy to use for pupils and staff? (KISS - keep it simple, stupid) * will the solution improve learning or make a difficult job easier?

It is difficult to define but the seamless integration of hardware and software on the Macintosh encourages you to believe that there is always a solution to a difficult problem. This sensation is usually absent when I use a PC - and this is not due to a lack of knowledge of such machines.

Apple has been through some difficult times, and this has frightened off many schools and forced them down different avenues. This hasn't been helped by the way the company is marketed in Britain. Apple UK looks after higher education and Xemplar also caters for Acorn and PCs, so there is no one with a purely Apple focus for schools.

However, Apple's hardware and software strategy over the next few years looks very consistent and strong, especially for education, with the popular iMac and G3s available now, and the keenly anticipated consumereducation portable (iBook) on its way. The Mac operating system also has a clearly defined path, which is more than can be said for Windows 9598 or NT5NT Server 2000.

Getting online and developing a school intranet are becoming priorities driven by the National Grid for Learning. One of Apple's best kept secrets is its line of AppleShare network servers which compete head to head with Windows NT servers, but come without all the technical and maintenance issues associated with NT.

It is possible to set up a school intranet with a web server, file server for PCs and Macs, email, FTP (file transfer protocol) and print servers within half an hour. Unless you are an expert, Windows NT will take days to configure and master although the end result will be the same. It really depends on whether you are one of those people who prefers to drive your car or lie underneath it and tinker.

If you want a less expensive Web intranet solution, then you can use Personal Web Sharing which comes free with every Apple. The trouble is that there is often very little more you can say about Apple technology except that you plug it in, it works and you get the job done.

A big problems with intranets and the Web is finding the information you want quickly and easily. If you have any experience of using the Internet with children, then you will know the frustration of seeing them spend the whole lesson trawling through all the search engines to find appropriate information.

Sherlock is a new feature of Apple's latest operating system (Mac OS8.5); not only will it search your hard disk but also your server for files, and even for text within those files. Even better, it can search for information on the Internet. You simply type in what you want to find and it will search the Web, give you a prioritised site list and a synopsis of each site. If you double-click on an entry, it will automatically open your browser and open the page for you, or you can simply copy and paste your search results into a word-processor file and edit it for future use - it is simple, quick,elegant and educational.

If you still consider a Macintosh machine to be an expensive toy used by eccentric people who like their computers and have no future, then I suggest you take a closer look. And, yes, Apple will still be around in 10 years, pushing forward the boundaries of what we can achieve in education.

Ian Carter is head of IT at Cheltenham College and is the author of 'School Managers' Report', published by Xemplar Education.

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