Hang ups

19th January 1996 at 00:00
At last week's Bett 96 in Olympia, all the machines on the Acorn stand had been painted a funereal black. I assumed that the serious injuries the company sustained in September had resulted in its sad demise.

Not wanting to intrude on private grief, I had every intention of keeping well clear, but was pounced upon by sundry salespersons. Their demeanour hardly suggested they were in mourning. They were, in fact, disconcertingly chirpy, bubbling with a Big New Idea about the future direction of educational technology. Of course, whenever you talk to anyone from Acorn (or Acorn Education, as this phoenix from the ashes should now be called), the inevitable happens. Whoosh! From somewhere about his person, he removes a Pocket Book the company's nifty little digital organiser and brandishes it like a conjuror with a bunch of silk flowers.

When they join Acorn, I assume that they have to sign a contract in which they undertake to show their Pocket Books at least twice in the course of any conversation. My heart sank, but he didn't want to show me how many telephone numbers he had logged, or how it could be used as an alarm. Instead, he proudly revealed that his Pocket Book was loaded with a version of The Three Little Pigs, normally only available on CD-Rom.

Admittedly, the illustrations were in black and white, but the whole text seemed to be there and, believe it or not, through its squeaky speaker I could hear the synthesised speech. Proof, he reckoned, that the Pocket Book has educational uses we haven't even begun to explore.

We're so preoccupied with the bog standard computer, that we forget that there might be more interesting ways of using silicon chips. For instance, Acorn was also able to show off the ingenious "set-top box", developed by the Online Media division of the parent company, which they're producing in conjunction with Oracle, the American communications giant. It's cheap, easy to use and plugs into an ordinary television. As well as playing CDs, Photo-CDs and CD-Roms, it can be linked to a local network, the Internet, or to the superhighway when it arrives. Aimed at the home market, but with enormous educational potential, it will enable users to download television programmes, video libraries, music, games software or World Wide Web pages. But it doesn't have a keyboard.

This was surely a major drawback, I suggested. Whoosh! He was brandishing his Pocket Book again. Triumphantly, he explained that it can be linked directly to the set-top box. This would enable school pupils, for instance, to send e-mail or download material which they could take away to study at their leisure.

Suddenly what I always thought of as "new technology" began to look decidedly old. Was all the equipment painted black because Acorn are anticipating the imminent death of the PC? Apparently not. It's a symbolic gesture, aimed at reminding teachers that they shouldn't be bamboozled by trade names, and the claims and counter-claims being made for different operating systems. In planning a future-proof IT strategy, they should first reflect on what they want pupils to be able to do, and then choose equipment purely on the basis of whether it will help them to do it.

Acorn, naturally, is sure that with its years of experience in catering for schools, and with its vision of "education being at the heart of a connected learning community", it is uniquely placed to shape the future of educational IT. It intends to hold meetings and seminars and seems genuinely keen to discover what teachers want.

It might be all hot air, of course. But despite what it says in The Three Little Pigs, sometimes a little purposeful huffing and puffing can produce remarkable results. Find out more by contacting Acorn on 01223 254222 or at media@ acorn.co.uk. I'm at arnoldevans @easynet.co.uk

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