The computer giants are ready to exploit parents' anxiety that their children do not miss the boat when it comes to new technology, writes Chris Johnston
In the run-up to Christmas, advertisers go all out as education becomes the selling point for new technology in the home. Crucial to this sales pitch is the suggestion that parents are not giving their children the best chance to succeed unless they provide them with a personal computer. The idea gathering pace is that information and communications technology can develop links between school and home. This is thought to be a good thing, but questions remain about the benefits.
Internet and networking technology is behind projects from the big players, including Microsoft and RM. Microsoft's brochure promoting its Connected Learning Community trial in Berkshire proclaims that "learning will not be limited by the hours of a school day, by the walls of a classroom, or by the confines of a student's home". The company believes that pupils, parents and entire communities can be linked in a learning environment by encouraging interaction between schools, homes, libraries, museums and the larger community of learning resources on the Internet.
For the past three years, Microsoft has been testing its vision in Reading, with the Highdown Information Hub, which connects the homes of 33 students and 17 teachers from the school of that name, to assess the benefits to students, teachers and parents. Research commissioned by the company concludes that pupils are more enthusiastic about their work, that parents take more interest in their children's education and that the role of the teacher has changed from being an information provider to afacilitator of learning.
In another home-school project, RM is using PIC (Personal Information Connect) network software at Cranford Community School in Hounslow, west London. It aims to improve the exchange of information and allow students and teachers to access the school network from their homes. Users can download material - such as pupil information, homework, lesson plans or school news - and send in their own contributions. They also have their own personal areas for storing files.
Eugene O'Connor, Cranford's head of ICT, says the project is an extension of the school's philosophy of extending access to groups in the community. (Two of its pupils are using the system to study for exams while sailing around the world with their family.) Giving the general public access to terminals is a crucial element of Edinburgh City Council's plan to connect its 158 schools and education support services. Ian Hamilton, the education department's ICT officer, says setting up cybercafes in four of its 37 community centres will allow parents and others to access information about schools as well as improve their ICT and Internet skills.
The Charles Darwin grant-maintained school in Bromley, south-east London, has become its own Internet service provider so that pupils can dial into its intranet from home as well as surf the Net. It is also involving parents and the community by acting as a consultant about ICT to local businesses and training their staff after office hours.
UT it is not only businesspeople who need training. As more parents buy computers for their children, many want to learn how to use them too. Charles Clarke, the Education Minister responsible for ICT, believes that schools have an important role to play in improving the public's computer skills by offering facilities out of school hours.
Netherhall school in Cambridge is experiencing increasing demand from parents for information about technology, says Alastair Wells, the head of ICT. He wants the school to be the centre of the wired community, and is encouraging interaction with parents by emailing newsletters to those who want them rather than just posting them on Netherhall's website.
Parents who have bought computers for their children also look to schools first for advice about what software to buy, according to research from the British Educational Suppliers' Association. But, says Dominic Savage, chief executive of the association, children strongly influence purchasing decisions: what some parents are persuaded is educational is often "edutainment". The survey suggests that the home learning revolution is still in its infancy and there is not much software that can be useful in school as well as the home.
However, the idea that home computers can provide surrogate schooling is not one that appeals to Professor Stephen Heppell, director of the Ultralab research unit at Anglia Polytechnic University. "I much more like the idea that computers are learning tools and that children are doing imaginative things with them at home in the same way that they are using them at school," he says.
A good example of how children can use computers creatively in the community, Professor Heppell says, is Tesco's SchoolNet 2000 venture, whereby they conduct interviews and make Web pages as part of a project that will be featured in the Millennium Dome. "It's such a lovely example of the way home and school and community can work together and do something that informs."
He believes that schools need to give credit to what pupils are using their home computers to do, such as launching a web fanzine for their local football club or helping to design the parish newsletter.
The Microsoft and RM projects are examples of schools spilling out into the home, which is a step in the right direction. But, in Professor Heppell's view, the reverse also needs to be true. "We've got to build projects that let us celebrate the work children are doing in schools, as well as letting parents understand the work children are doing in schools," he says. "It's got to work both ways and if it doesn't we're in for a pretty bleak future."
Although the number of computers in schools is increasing rapidly (there are more than 655,000 computers for pupil use), the ratio of students to machines is still high. BESA's survey (see box, left) reveals that the figure (excluding very old machines) is one computer per 8.7 pupils in secondary schools and one per 16.3 primary pupils. This also makes home access appear attractive for families.
Microsoft is experimenting with giving each pupil a laptop computer in some of the schools, such as Highdown, participating in its Anywhere, Anytime Learning trial. But doing so for every student in the country is a pipedream, because of the expense.
However, Mark East, Microsoft UK's head of education, says a solution may be to provide a laptop for every family. "While parents are working during the day, they're not using their home computer. There is no reason why their children could not be using a notebook at school and then bring it home to use as a family resource."
Microsoft hopes the launch of cheaper Jupiter laptops that use its scaled-down Windows CE operating system - they are expected around Christmas and will sell for about Pounds 600 - could make pupil ownership more likely.
But the most important role technology has to play, Mr East says, is in making learning fun for more children. The barrier, however, remains the one which still generates the gap between the haves and have-nots - cost. A decent desktop computer still costs about Pounds 1,000 and a laptop half as much again.
The danger is the creation of a group of children who have a computer at home to use whenever they like and those who can use one only at school - if they can ever get on to one. And that could affect their chances in life - a point not lost in the glossy advertising now being unleashed on families.
In the lap of learning, page 12
BESA SCHOOLS SURVEY: WHO'S BUYING WHAT
The British Educational Suppliers Association has assessed the extent of technology in schools. The research is based on responses from 777 primary and 618 secondary schools.
* Numbers of machines: Schools have an estimated 655,000 computers (excluding old BBC machines) - 1 per 16.3 pupils in primaries and 1 per 8.7 students in secondaries.
* How often they buy: Primary schools are buying 70,000 computers a year, more than double three years ago. In secondaries, the rate is up from an expected 51,000 a year to almost 95,000.
* Top choice: Windows PCs account for most new purchases at the expense of Acorns, but sales of Apple Macintoshes are holding steady.
* Internet links: 87% of secondary schools and 34% of primary schools are connected to the Internet, up from 40% and 19% three years ago. However, 37% of secondaries and 66% ofprimaries have just one computer with Net access.
* Networking: Networked computers are found in 18% of primaries and 80% of secondaries.
* ICT support: Most primary schools (73%) still use local education authorities for back-up - 14% choose commercial companies and 13% go to independent consultants. The split is more even in secondaries, with 56% using LEAs, 30% commercial providers and 14% consultants.
* Millennium bug: 47% of primaries and 67% of secondaries are fully aware of the problem, but 54% and 46% have no funds devoted to ensuring their computers are ready for the year 2000.