Future is scribed on school tablets

17th September 2004 at 01:00
The advent of paperless maths classrooms has encouraged more pupils to study the subject, Douglas Blane reports

People in the near future will be amazed that children once struggled to school bowed down by bulging bags of textbooks, jotters, pencil cases and an occasional apple for the teacher.

"Before long all they will need is a pair of gym shoes and a tablet PC," says Michael Aitchison, principal teacher of maths at Invergordon Academy.

The vision Mr Aitchison shares with the headteacher at the Highland secondary is of a virtually paperless school in which every one of the 405 pupils has his or her own tablet PC, and is accessing all their courses electronically.

The realisation of this vision is still some way off, he explains, mainly due to current costs, which are not far short of pound;1,000 a pupil, "once you include the hardware, the network and all the wee extra bits and pieces". But Mr Aitchison has demonstrated with his Advanced Higher maths class that, given the funding, the resources and the commitment, the vision can be realised - and there are sound educational reasons for doing so.

"Maths can be deadly boring," he says. "So this way of working has greatly enhanced learning and teaching and improved the students' motivation. We have doubled the numbers enrolled for next session that we usually get at Advanced Higher."

Another benefit of paperless education to schools with a limited pool of teaching expertise is the wider range of courses that can be accessed by students, provided that electronic materials are available.

This is a limitation at present, says Mr Aitchison. "When we looked into electronic textbooks for Higher maths, we were given a flat no by Heinemann. The other main supplier for Scotland, Nelson Thornes, said they were about two years away."

At Advanced Higher, on the other hand, there is an abundance of electronic materials, such as Heriot-Watt University's Scholar course notes and books.

Materials for homework and assessments have been produced by Invergordon's maths department or obtained from other schools and the internet, for example from the Mathsroom site.

The educational benefits arise from the system as a whole rather than any single feature of it, says Mr Aitchison. Students can work through a problem on the computer screen while referring, at the touch of a stylus, to an electronic textbook or other resource.

If a student gets stuck, the teacher can take control from his or her computer and write hints or suggestions that appear on the student's screen or even all the screens in the class. "I can view their screens and write on them, and they can view mine if I want them to," says Mr Aitchison.

When assignments are complete, students submit them to the teacher through the computer network. There is no need to take home a pile of jotters.

The other way to interact with the class is by using the data projector wired to a laptop computer on Mr Aitchison's desk, which is linked to the wireless network and controlled from his tablet PC. "I can project my screen, or any of the pupils' screens," he says.

During exams the teacher can invigilate from his or her desk, keeping an eye on everything the students do, to ensure no one is accessing the internet or stored notes. "The next step is to use a special account with access to nothing but the exam paper," Mr Aitchison says.

The opportunities the system brings for collaboration, interaction, student presentations, whole class teaching and individual tuition create a flexible and effective environment for teachers of any subject, says Mr Aitchison.

"Apart from a few teething troubles, the only problem we've encountered is battery life - they last only about two hours - but this is something they are working on, and you can buy an extended life battery.

"Our students are delighted with the computers, and the course has been completed successfully with only one bit of paper needed - the signing-out form for insuring the tablets."

http:scholar.hw.ac.ukwww.mathsroom.co.ukSETTTake 30 Tablets Six Times Daily by Michael Aitchison, Wed, 12.15pm

SCRAPPING PAPER

Moving to a paperless maths classroom requires a substantial investment in technology.

Hardware

* RM teacher tablet with fingerprint sensor for secure access

* RM student tablets

* wireless digital projector

* wireless local area network

Software

* Microsoft Journal, an electronic notepad that accepts handwritten notes, corrects if requested, allows handwriting to be searched for keywords, and printed text to be written upon. "It is the pupils' jotter and my whiteboard," says Mr Aitchison.

* Acrobat Reader - for accessing textbooks in PDF format

* Microsoft Word 2002, a word processor that supports annotations to text

* Virtual TI, an emulator of Texas Instruments' TI83 graphic calculator

* Ultra VNC, the remote desktop program used to interact with the students'

computers. "It connects the teacher's and pupils' tablets wirelessly, and means I can help them if necessary. I can also monitor their progress without peering over their shoulders," says Mr Aitchison

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