Beware those 'box-shifters';Briefing;School Management;Computers;Opinion

12th March 1999 at 00:00
My local primary recently asked my advice on what sort of computer systems it should buy to link it to the National Grid for Learning. I was only too happy to help because my daughter's school, like many others, is in a difficult position when it comes to technology.

It has little or no direct experience of computers. It does have some ageing secondhand systems, but these wouldn't look out of place in a technology museum. Second, it wants to induce its teachers into appreciating the advantages of technology by letting them try computers out for themselves. Finally, there was the promise that serious money would be available for some state-of-the-art kit.

Against my advice, the school decided to buy two PCs - both made by manufacturers I had never heard of - after seeing an advertisement. One was priced at pound;399 and the second, higher-specification system (with internal modem, free printer, stereo speakers etc) at pound;599. The school's approach was understandable. On the face of it, two computers for the price of one is a good deal.

But buying cheap is fraught with dangers, particularly at the lower end of the Windows-based PC sector, where reliability tends to lag behind Acorn and Macintosh systems. Many of these cheap systems may be capable, but it is important to remember that the product is just one factor a school should consider.

First, look at the seller. Basically, the education market can be divided into three sectors: two firms have dominated. The leader is RM, known for making good, reliable machines with technical back-up and training to match. Then Xemplar, which now distributes Apple Macintosh systems following Acorn's withdrawal from the desktop market. These firms used to have roughly a third each of the market, with the other third taken up by other manufacturers, among whom you will find many gems, but also cowboys. The "box-shifters", companies offering the cheapest deals, are often only able to do so because they provide minimum technical support. Good technical support and the ability to up-grade add to the price. Poor advice or poor after-sales support can add to the long-term cost.

And don't be fooled. Your computers will go wrong. Whatever you buy will need occasional fixing. Just how occasional depends on quality .

Which brings me to my next point. My clear preference is for Apple computers. For ease of use - and, therefore, speed (and cost) of teacher training and pupil enthusiasm - they are difficult to beat. And research has consistently shown that the time Windows-based PCs are out of action because of breakdown is around four times that of a Macintosh.

A cheap PC is perfectly suitable for most home use - surfing the Net, a bit of word processing and accessing digital images. In a school, you have all of this, and more - together with a user group that's less than interested in the finer points of computer maintenance. In schools a relatively new and cheap PC could stand idle awaiting repair - for an age.

Big education suppliers are aware of the need to support schools in maintaining systems. They can also help to determine how you might need to upgrade your computers once the software scene has moved on. Ignoring what they can offer could be a costly mistake. Cheap does not necessarily mean cheerful.

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