Gift-horses? Watch out for dinosaurs

3rd January 1997 at 00:00
We're not ungrateful, but industry's ancient discarded hardware is unsuitable for schools, says Chris Abbott.

Sending the books at least seemed like something we could do. The Biafran War had shocked us all and when the conflict was over, those of us teaching far away in the UK wanted to help the Nigerian education system recover. Answering an appeal in a teaching union newspaper, we began collecting unwanted textbooks and library books, which were then shipped out to Africa. Even if we didn't want them, those who had less than us would surely be able to make use of them?

To my surprise, a few years later I found myself working in Nigeria, training teachers. I had forgotten about that book collection scheme until I was helping to clear a cupboard at the teachers' college one day. There, at the back of the cupboard, were mountains of useless books, shipped at great expense from the UK but entirely inappropriate for Africa.

That's why I don't jump with joy every time another politician or business manager announces a scheme to give schools the secondhand computers for which industry no longer has any use. Of course, such schemes have become a little more sensible than they once were; I still remember the local building society manager who rang me in 1990 and couldn't understand why a school would have no use for half a dozen discless 286 PCs with no network cards, software or mice and with monochrome monitors.

Most of today's schemes seem to be offering much more effective equipment, although it is usually hardware and not software or support which is on offer. So why do so many people, especially those who are attempting to support schools in their use of IT, seem to be looking these gift-horses in the mouth? They are often criticised for their reaction, especially by politicians and even some journalists, who still find it difficult to understand education's difficulty.

A first concern is the level of hardware. Presumably none of the schemes will offer Acorn or Apple equipment; there is very little Acorn equipment in industry and the publishing sector is unlikely to be giving away its high-performance Macs. So it is PCs that are likely to be on offer, and the danger is that the specification will be too low and that the necessary upgrading, training and support needed will cost far more than is saved by the "free" machines.

The very lowest specification PC that would be of any use to a school is a 486 with at least eight megabytes of memory. At the very least it should come with Windows 3.11, but preferably Windows 95. Whether it comes with other software opens up a very difficult area. Schools have in the past been offered computers with all kinds of software already installed, but it has usually been illegal because they don't have a licence.

Schools usually buy basic software pre-installed with PCs these days, and to have two or three extra computers for which they need to buy Word for Windows, Excel and a range of educational products is likely to cost several hundred pounds per machine. If the computers are for a secondary school and are to be used on a network then the school's existing licence may cover extra stations, but it often does not.

Support is important too; the great success of the Research Machines's Window Box, made even more evident by the way in which other manufacturers are trying to offer protected versions of Windows PCs (see pages 40-41), means that primary schools in particular have not had to deal with machines on which small fingers and inquisitive brains have wrought havoc. Rebuilding the desktop several times a week is not an activity which most primary information technology co-ordinators would approach with relish.

Is there no use in education for these redundant computers? Well, actually, yes there is: give them to the teachers. That was what we did in Africa when we found those books; they may have been of no use for teaching but they made fascinating reading for students with interests covered by the books in question. Similarly, last year's laptops-for-teachers' pilot scheme by the Department for Education and Employment showed that even our political masters recognise that teachers need their own computers at home if they are to develop IT capability. Lack of software or protection for the operating system will be much less of a problem for the enthusiastic teacher. Research has shown that it is only when one has constant access to a computer that real change takes place.

Assuming no future government actually gives a computer to every teacher - unlikely, even if the Monster Raving Loony Party gets elected - let's encourage these apparently well-intentioned companies to set up a national clearing house for teachers. All those who make out a good case would get a PC within a month or so.

Now that would make a difference to the nation's teaching force, even if it doesn't make for quite such heart-warming and valuable free publicity as the photo in the local paper of a computer being presented to a special school by a beaming managing director.

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