ICT - Don't pull the plug

19th November 2010 at 00:00
ICT budgets are badly squeezed, so it's vital to distinguish between 'can-do-withouts' and 'must-haves'. Jack Kenny reports on promising new offerings

When budgets are being cut and belts tightened, splashing out on new equipment may be the last thing on anybody's mind. But there is a danger that schools could quickly become ICT museums if the shutters come down completely.

Just because money is in short supply, it does not mean that new developments have also dried up. The trick is finding the right balance between necessary innovation and frivolous novelty; between "must-have" transformation and "can-do-without" changes. In the past few years, generous funding has placed UK schools in the vanguard of the technology revolution. In the next few years, judicious thinking and sensible decisions will help keep them there.

So if you are in the fortunate position of having money to spend, what is the latest equipment coming on to the market?

Asus 1015 netbook

Asus netbooks changed computing in schools a few years back. The latest addition to the series is the 1015 (#163;279). It offers up to 11 hours of battery life - more than enough for a full day at school. Asus found that many of its netbooks were used for Skype, so with this model the built-in microphone is designed to suppress background noise. Another advantage is that if users accidentally touch the keypad while typing, the cursor does not zoom off - a boon in a busy classroom. The netbook comes with Windows 7 and basic programs, and has 160GB storage.

Asus netbooks have been in use for some time at Alsop High School in Liverpool, where English teacher Sally-Anne Tapia-Bowes is a fan. The photo- and video-editing functions are useful for film study units, she says, while pupils can also use Skype, play MP3s and listen to the radio. "We have used them non-stop," she says. "They still appear as steady and as reliable as they did when they were first purchased." http:uk.asus.com

Smart Board 800 series

Anyone using a smart phone or an iPad soon becomes used to screen gestures: pinching, zooming, swiping and tossing. In January, interactive whiteboard company Smart Technologies will introduce the Smart Board 800 series, which will respond to those gestures on the big screen.

Many of its functions also aim to make it easier for pupils to use. Two pupils can work together on the same activity, even performing different tasks simultaneously, such as writing with digital ink and manipulating digital objects anywhere on the interactive whiteboard surface.

The software is sophisticated enough to recognise when the user is using a finger touch, stylus, pointer or other object on the interactive whiteboard surface, while digital cameras are positioned in each corner of the whiteboard frame and send information back to a digital signal processor to determine the exact point of contact. www.smarttech.com

Podium with video

Creating a podcast calls on many skills and it can be exciting for pupils to see the result when it is eventually published to the world. It is reasonably easy to create your own podcast using free software, but in the end you have to find some way of hosting it on the internet. The original Podium gives you all the software and makes hosting the results very easy. Now Podium will also do video and it promises to be as straightforward to use as its older brother. If you have used video software such as Movie Maker you will have experience of laying down video and audio tracks. Podium with video works in the same way.

Podium will have many uses in the curriculum. Pete Goodman at Bamboo Learning, consultants in teaching Mandarin Chinese, has been running a pilot with six schools and says the video in Podium has been particularly useful in showing how the sounds are shaped by the mouth. The cost of a single licence is #163;69. www.podiumpodcasting.com

Promethean ActivEngage

An oft-repeated criticism of interactive whiteboards is that they can lead to passive learning, with pupils watching instead of doing. But handsets are a way of making sure the class gets involved. Existing versions, such as ActiVote or ActivExpression, give everybody the chance to take part, as well as making it more enjoyable for pupils.

Now there is a new product, ActivEngage, software that enables laptops, netbooks or desktop computers to act just like handsets. The result is voting capability in more classrooms via computers instead of handsets. It is also cheaper. While ActivExpression costs #163;1,899 for a set of 32 handsets, it costs #163;2,199 to upload ActivEngage software onto 100 computers. Free trials are available. http:support.prometheanplanet.com

I Can Present Studio

Fancy getting your class to stand outside Downing Street to present the news? You can with I Can Present. All pupils can benefit from learning how to present themselves or their work, and this new software enables them to practise against whichever backdrop they choose. The green-screen technology cuts out anything defined as green and replaces it with new footage or computer graphics. The package also includes a teleprompter, while pupils can add a scrolling news ticker on the bottom of the screen.

"It is incredibly easy to use," says Gillian Penny, head of Gavinburn Primary in West Dunbartonshire. "Although it is a sophisticated process, the software is simple." She says pupils have used it to portray themselves as a rock band on tour, report from Clydebank during the Blitz and observe alien landings.

"While the children are recording they can see themselves against the new background as the audience will see them," adds Ms Penny. "The teleprompter means they have to write the script, which gives a literacy link." The I Can Present package costs #163;149.95, including software, camera and green screen. www.kudlian.netproductsicanpresentindex.html.

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