Deus ex machina

2nd February 1996 at 00:00
An anonymous benefactor pledged Pounds 500,000 to transform a school's computer system. Stephen Quigley tells what happened

Late in 1992, Worth School in Crawley, an independent secondary boarding school for 400 boys, run by Benedictine monks, received an astonishing offer. It was to fund a project to make it as easy for boys to access information technology as paper and pencil. No financial limit was mentioned.

Now, just two years into a five-year project worth Pounds 500,000, the school feels its culture has already gone through an irreversible change.

Worth had previously made little effective use of IT, since it just had a small room of PC 286 machines. It soon became apparent that the benefactor, who remains anonymous, had more in mind than simply a large number of machines. So the school sought the advice of Don Passey, senior research fellow in psychology at Lancaster University, member of the STAC project team (Supporting Technology across the Curriculum) and an independent IT consultant to schools.

After visiting the school and meeting pupils and staff, Passey recommended a five-year project that would include a school-wide network, a one-to-three ratio of personal computers to pupils, the close involvement of the teaching staff and no IT department.

In March 1994 the school invited tenders from three suppliers, out of which Research Machines was picked. The contract was for up to 160 PCs (486s) running Windows 3.1, a CD-Rom server for eight CDs, 10 laser printers, a colour printer and two scanners together with software and services, as well as cabling.

Next, the school appointed an IT co-ordinator, Kevin Alpin, whose skills as a teacher of IT to novices were considered at least as important as his technical knowledge.

Educational and administrative blocks were cabled, and equipment started to go in a few months later. Machines went into two network rooms, classrooms and departments on a phased basis.

All 40 members of staff, eight of them monks, were given their own machines, a quarter of whom picked laptops. Their timetables included one lesson a week of IT instruction for themselves, progressing from keyboard skills to word processing and databases.

Only a handful were familiar with the technology, so there was a good deal of mutual support. Teachers got help from boys who were more advanced than they were, and boys helped each other. This development of a single learning community has, in the view of headmaster Dom Christopher Jamison, been one of the most valuable side-effects.

During the year, many boys got started, although they were given no formal IT lessons. Before allowing them access to the network, Alpin had them sign a contract committing them to good housekeeping such as regular virus checking, password security, logging off when leaving the machine and not importing programs from outside.

"We wanted them to take responsibility for the network and their equipment as part of the total work environment," he says. If they brought in a naughty picture, they would soon be spotted and be banned from the network for a week.

By the end of the summer term, all the preparatory work had been completed and an IT culture was beginning to be established. Last term the pace began to quicken. Boys entering in Years 6 or 9 were given lessons in touch-typing. Teaching staff started getting subject-specific software on approval and some were putting work assignments on the network.

With machines available in network rooms, in departmental clusters and in the library, which was open for supervised use 12 hours a day on weekdays and much of the weekends, boys had excellent opportunities for access. By the end of the autumn term 90 per cent of them were using the machines daily and academic performance was beginning to benefit.

John Denman, head of geography, had been getting some of his boys to make regional comparisons of the UK climate, using weather station data held on CD-Rom. He is impressed by the efforts going into presentation: "As they use text, graphics and spreadsheets for their projects, the boys take increased pride in their work. And having to spend more time on it, they give more thought to its quality."

Spectacular developments were taking place in media studies, art and music. Boys were downloading video and editing cartoons, using powerful multimedia machines. Others, with the aid of a midi keyboard, were composing music on screen.

The headmaster is excited about what is being achieved and the effect of IT on learning. "Use of CD-Rom," he says, "is encouraging boys to take more trouble with their research and, ironically, leading to a greater use of library books. It is also encouraging them to take greater responsibility for their own learning."

The coming year will see the consolidation of hardware and greater application of IT in the curriculum. Using an audit program written for the school by Research Machines, Kevin Alpin will monitor usage and help individuals and departments to exploit the facilities in the best way.

Communications inside and outside the school will also increase. Applications for the Internet, now used by some boys to write home, will be extended to build links with French and Spanish schools for foreign language projects.

Department heads use PCs to produce their reports for the housemasters. At some point the reports will possibly be sent by electronic mail and consolidated on screen before despatch to parents. Looking further ahead, pupils could submit assignments and have them marked electronically.

The school is already planning to buy a CD-Rom server for 14 CDs. Over time it will upgrade to 16 megabyte Pentiums as staff and pupil use becomes more sophisticated. By the time the five years are up, the benefaction will have exceeded Pounds 500,000. Thereafter the school will budget from its own resources.

Don Passey, who continues as a project consultant, believes the school's unhurried approach has been very important: "Worth School started way behind in its use of IT. This project catapults them to the forefront. With their new equipment they are well placed to realise the full benefits of the learning superhighway."

By the time the project is completed, boys at the school will probably continue to use paper and pencil as well as IT, but not because of greater ease of access.

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