In most schools, the hard-wired PC is still king, but it is not the only option for schools that want to update their ICT resources. Hand-held, wireless computers, for example, have encroached far enough on the world of desktop computing to be an attractive alternative to the networked suite of humming PCs commonly found hooked up to the wall in ICT rooms across the country.
Already, some schools have portable ICT solutions that avoid the need for expensive wiring, offer much more flexibility as to where students can use resources and have radio waves for fast internet access.
At Bedford high school, head of technology Kathryn McCauley has installed Apple's iBook wireless laptop solution. She says: "The main benefit is that the network is not fixed in a room; it's a bookable facility that moves to where it is needed."
Apple's Airport system requires a single category 5 ethernet cable connected to an AirPort base station for its networking. "We can cover the whole site with one investment rather than having to cable the site over a period of time," says Ms McCauley.
Reay primary school, St Mark's primary school and Henry Fawcett primary school in the London borough of Lambeth are taking part in a project to trial the educational uses of the Psion netBook at school and at home. The project is supported by a taskforce comprising the educational charity CfBT and Lambeth education action zone.
The EAZ chose Psion's netBook for its ease of use and accessibility. It is also far easier for young children to carry in their satchel between school and ome than a heavier, bulkier laptop in a carry case. Dr Tim Coulson, of Lambeth EAZ, says: "The small size and high reliability mean pupils now have a secure and stable device with which they can access a wide range of learning tools."
There are no large-scale UK trials of inexpensive, hand-held computers with pop-up antennae to match those under way in several US states: Palm, with its Palm VII, Handspring, with the sub-pound;300 Visor, and Microsoft, with its Pocket PCs with keyboard, are the major players in this market.
Software for hand-helds is better developed for administrative tasks than curriculum studies, but education applications are catching up fast. Alongside note-taking, field research, graphing calculator and mobile communications, hand-helds are adding content such as encyclopaedias and software for classroom quizzes.
Equipping each student with his or her own hand-held device enables teachers to beam assignments to pupils without any need to photocopy and hand out worksheets. And when used with student identity cards and a built-in scanner, the devices manage registration and tell the teacher where a pupil should be at any one time.
Potential drawbacks are the security of information sent with radio signals, plus the risk that a small device will be stolen. But many industry experts believe hand-held devices could be the cheapest, most effective way to put a computer into the hands of every child. Critics would argue that attaching students to gadgets 247 just turns them into e-dependent, lazy learners.