George Cole finds that computers and the outdoors do go together in our summer learning special
Today's youngsters spend so much time in front of television and computer screens that culture-watchers have coined new phrases to describe them: screenagers and mouse potatoes. So it's tempting to think that with the arrival of long holidays and summer skies, children should pack away their keyboards and get out in the sunshine and fresh air.
But information and communications technology (ICT) and outdoors activities are not mutually exclusive. Many theme parks offer ICT-related activities and some have special workshops and programmes. Educational company Study Experiences organises trips to Disneyland Paris and although these take place out of peak season, schools should think about booking up next year's visit this summer.
The company organised a trip for Tony O'Donovan, IT co-ordinator at Eltham Hill Secondary School, who led a group of Year 10 GCSE IT students to the park. He says: "There were three seminars. The first looked at how computers were used in the hotel; for booking rooms, processing bills, allocating keys and so on. The second looked at how computers were used in the park, for the fail-safe mechanisms on the Space Mountain ride, for example, and the last seminar was about working at Disneyland Paris."
He praises the "slick" seminars but adds: "If I have one criticism, it would be that there was too much information - it was hard to keep up at times. Next time, I will get students to focus on particular topics. I was also disappointed we weren't taken behind the scenes, but I suspect that's more to do with commercial secrecy. Having said that, it was very worthwhile and we will be back."
Frank Springall, head of IT at Crown Woods School, Eltham, also enjoyed a visit to Disneyland Paris with his A-level computing class. He says:"The time we were there, there were around 1,000 sixth-formers from England and the seminars took place in a large hall near the theme park. The first was probably more useful for business studies students but there was lots of information for all."
On the second day, his students worked in the park to complete tasks set out on worksheets. "The good thing was that children can see computers are not just PCs sitting on a desk," he says.
Springall believes the seminars provide good background experience on computers rather than on any specific topic and says that for future visits he will alter his syllabus so students know about certain topics before they arrive. But like O'Donovan, he believes the trip was well organised and worthwhile: "Any residential experience does positive things for the group dynamics and all the students had a very good time."
If seminar-based education doesn't take your fancy or you're after a trip for this summer, a number of organisations such as the Kingswood Centres and ActiveIT combine ICT tuition with outdoor activities. John Parry, head of ICT at Wimbledon Chase Middle School, took 103 students to the Kingswood Centre on the Isle of Wight, a former public school with 300 acres of grounds. He was highly impressed with the trip. He says: "I did a lot of research before choosing Kingswood and it wasn't just the activities that attracted me but the educational aspect - we wanted to combine the educational with the physical.
"We went on the 'Earth Studies and ICT' course, which lasts eight days. The pupils used Roamers (robotic devices known as floor turtles), digital cameras, HyperStudio multimedia software, desktop publishing, and got a lot out of it. There was one computer per child - lots of hands-on experience - and they each spent around 13 hours on the computer. The centre even provided a CD-Rom containing their work so we could continue it back at school."
Chris Wilkins, deputy head of St George's RC Primary School, Worcester, is also a fan of Kingswood Centres and welcomes its approach to ICT tuition. He says: "All the computers were up-to-date PCs and Apple Macs and they linked computers to everyday life, such as traffic light control, cold-air fans and heaters. Children are able to see computers in a different context to that of a classroom."
Both Wilkins and Parry praise the centres' instructors. "They are calm and competent and deal with any problems and that helps the children," says Wilkins. "The nice thing is that the children are not afraid to make mistakes on a computer and they're happy to talk to the instructors." Parry agrees: "We always evaluate these things and we went through the week with the centre staff, so they obviously listen and respond to suggestions. I was very impressed."
One more company in the same vein is Futurekids, which offers holiday computer clubs where children can get lots of hands-on experience.
Another source of summertime activities is the local ICT training centre. Peter Davies, senior ICT adviser at South Devon Training Centre, says he could offer computer assembly workshops. "If people think this is interesting, we can make provision. Late July and August are our quiet periods, so we could organise tuition, PC parts, test equipment and so on." Your local education authority may also organise ICT-related activities.
A more unusual source of summer learning is the local football club. The Government, together with Premier and Nationwide Football League clubs, have formed the "Playing for Success" partnership (see page 22). There are currently around 30 teams participating, from Barnsley to Wolverhampton Wanderers, to create study centres for key stage 2 and 3 pupils that will be open out of school hours and during holidays. Charlton Athletic, for example, plans to focus on literacy and numeracy skills and will offer a wide range of ICT equipment and software. The courses will be open to girls and boys and will include sporting activities.
There are many factors to weigh up when deciding on a summer ICT activity. Cost is probably the main influence but don't forget to consider the range of ICT equipment and software available, the activities on offer, the computer-to-child ratio and the instructors - how many, their qualifications and their experience.
WHO DOES WHAT
* Organisation: ActiveIT (Superchoice)
What it offers: Combines IT with adventure activities such as abseiling, football, nature walks and quad bikes. For example, a pupil may wear a pulse monitor during an activity and then later download the data on to a computer. Equipment includes desktop PCs, pocketbook computers and digital cameras and there is one computer for each pupil. Has centres on the Isle of Wight and in Dorset.
Other information: A long weekend costs pound;71 per pupil, with a free teacher place for every 10 pupils. Contact: 01273 676467
* Organisation: Exploring IT (PGL)
What it offers: A range of technology courses including control, desktop publishing and the Internet, plus various outdoor activities.
Other information: Three centres; in Shropshire, Surrey and Scotland. Prices range from pound;41 to pound;113 per pupil, depending on the length of stay and the time of year. Contact: 01989 769011.
* Organisation: Futurekids
What it offers: Computer classes and holiday computer camps. Camps may last either one or two weeks and include courses on desktop publishing, word processing and robotics.
Other information: Eight camps across England, plus one in Edinburgh. Prices variable. Contact: 0171 584 8111.
* Organisation: Kingswood Centres
What it offers: IT courses for primary, middle and secondary schools. Many indoor and outdoor activities including climbing, swimming, basketball, fencing and exploring woodlands and rivers.
Other information: Has centres on the Norfolk coast, the Isle of Wight and in Staffordshire. Minimum group size is 10 pupils. Prices range from pound;45 to pound;234 (plus VAT) per pupil. Contact: 01263 579157 or 01902 847000.
* Organisation: Study Experiences
What it offers: Visits to Disneyland Paris. Three seminars, plus day at theme park with work activities.
Other information: pound;99 to pound;115 per child (four sharing room). One teacher free for every 10 students (on basis of two teachers sharing room). Two nights in hotel, optional extra day for trip around Paris; cost of pound;99 per pupil. Contact: 0181 335 4455