The Government has spent heavily on portable machines for teachers. But why has the project been confined to Windows, asks George Cole
If you want to learn how to ride a bike, you need have to have a set of two wheels. So says Andre Wagstaff, a project manager at BECTA, the British Educational and Communications Technology Agency. "The same applies to information and communications technology (ICT). Teachers gain confidence and competence in ICT if they can use it regularly." His agency is involved in a government initiative that will literally put ICT into the hands of thousands of teachers in an effort to raise their skills.
The Multimedia Portables for Teachers scheme was announced by David Blunkett at the BETT educational technology show last January. The announcement followed two highly successful similar projects. The first phase ran from February 1996 to summer 1997 and provided 1,200 teachers with a portable computer with a built-in CD-Rom drive. An evaluation study found that 98 per cent of teachers successfully used their computers both in and outside school. The results were so good that when phase two was launched in February 1997, providing almost 400 portables, an evaluation study was deemed unnecessary.
When the Secretary of State for Education announced the portables scheme at the BETT educational technology show in January, around Pounds 4 million was originally earmarked for it. However, in April, an additional Pounds 19 million was allocated to the scheme. Almost 10,000 portables will be provided to teachers this summer, with most going to headteachers and senior management in primary schools (each successful school will get two computers). Literacy co-ordinators and the Teacher Training Agency will also receive around 200 portables.
In addition, teachers will also receive a colour printer, assorted software, digital camera and Internet access, as well as a three-hour demonstration covering the basics, such as how to use CD-Roms and log on to the Internet.
The companies supplying the hardware and software are Centerprise International - which, at more than 5,000 laptops, won the lion's share of the order - Hi-Grade Computers, Opus Technology and RM. RM is providing 1,000 portables, and subscriptions to its Internet reference service are included with all the machines in the project.
Andre Wagstaff says it is important senior staff get to use computers. "In most ICT initiatives, strong support from senior management is essential for success. But all too often they do not get the opportunity to use the technology themselves. Senior management are human and they are rightly sceptical about things which they have had little or no experience of." He adds that if a headteacher is seen using ICT, this sets a good example to staff.
There are many things to applaud about this laptop scheme, not least the large amount of money the Government has allocated to it. The machines' specification is also good, even though none of the computers include cutting-edge technology such as Pentium II chips and DVD-Rom drives (a higher-capacity version of CD-Rom).
Andre Wagstaff says selecting the right equipment is a balancing act. "You don't want teachers ending up with obsolete or end-of-line equipment, but nor do we want leading-edge technology," he said. "If we had included a DVD-Rom drive, for example, teachers would have been asking where the software was because, at the moment, it's almost non-existent."
Few would disagree with the argument that it is better to put computers offering good performance into the hands of many than give expensive, turbo-charged machines to a few. The inclusion of Internet access and a digital camera (allowing users to take pictures and put them into a computer or on the Net) is also an inspired move.
Nick Jepson, RM's strategic projects manager, says: "The online world is gathering pace, and more and more content will be delivered online. This is the start of it. Then there is the Virtual Teachers Centre. It's brilliant that so many teachers will have access to this technology."
But there are downsides. The decision to raise the amount of funding by almost a factor of six (by using end-of-year "unspent" money) created problems for BECTA and companies participating in the scheme. The agency admits that the need to spend the money quickly meant that availability became an important factor in awarding contracts.
Martin Allington, Centerprise's education business manager, says: "In our case, the extra funding did not create a problem. BECTA is a knowledgeable body and knows how to get the best price against performance."
Current thinking is that schools should have choice, so eyebrows have been raised over the absence of any Apple Macintosh computers in the scheme, even though some were supplied in the first phase. Although Windows PCs are the dominant computer format, thousands of schools use Apple machines. And Apple laptops are highly regarded.
Andre Wagstaff says no platform was ruled out, but it does seem extraordinary that machines such as Apple's acclaimed new G3 portable were excluded. And an Apple eMate laptop that Xemplar submitted for consideration was returned with a Microsoft sticker on the screen - presumably a joke, but Xemplar was not amused.
It is also astonishing that the three companies which have arguably played the biggest role in the educational computing market - Xemplar, RM and ICL - are so poorly represented in such a big scheme. RM won about 10 per cent of the total orders, while the others got nothing.
No one is suggesting that just because a company is a big player in the education market, it should receive preferential treatment, but the "no Apple" decision - with no explanation - is puzzling. "The only feedback we had was a six-line letter informing us that our bid had been rejected," says Brendan O'Sullivan, managing director of Xemplar, which markets Apple. "We've been trying to get more information for weeks."
The Government and BECTA should be applauded for such an ambitious scheme for so many teachers, but one hopes that any future projects will be more sensitive to long-term supporters of the educational market. And that hidden agendas are made public.