If you're buying a home computer, perhaps under the Computers for Teachers scheme, you also have to decide on an Internet service provider.
There are hundreds of ISPs to choose from, but essentially they all do the same job: provide a connection between your computer and the Internet, using the modem in your computer and your telephone line. Computers usually have an ISP preloaded but it is up to you whether you use this or find an alternative. All ISPs give their software away free, either on a CD-Rom or downloaded from the Internet. At home you are likely to use a dial-up connection, which means the ISP's software on your computer dials a local rate telephone number via your modem to connect your computer. ISPs with no monthly charge for their service are popular with all home users, teachers included. For a current list of the many companies offering "free" ISPs (you still pay for the calls) the website at http:freeisps.cjb.net is well worth a visit.
Ask friends, family and colleagues which ISP they use at home: how reliable it is and whether it slows down at certain times of day. Small can be beautiful for ISPs: as well as internet access, ISPs manage your e-mail, and those with very large numbers of users are targeted on a daily basis with junk e-mail about which you can do very little.
Bill Gates, chairman of Microsoft, the software company, was in London last month to promote his vision of a laptop for every child. Microsoft has launched a fairly complex purchasing scheme called Anywhere Anytime Learning which enables schools to establish a charitable foundation. Laptops are bought through the foundation from one of five computer manufacturers which have been nominated by Microsoft. All the laptops on offer run on Microsoft's Windows system.
This still leaves the question of who pays and in most cases it is likely to be parents. Equipping one child witha laptop through the scheme is likely to cost more than pound;1,000. Mr Gates has the Government's backing for his scheme. Michael Wills, Minister for Education and IT said it was "a marvellous example of how technology can expand children's educational horizons".
Microsoft has piloted the scheme in 28 UK schools and claims it not only makes a significant difference to pupils' learning but also improves the relationship between teacher, pupil and parent. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the scheme is the use of the charitable foundation which means that parents buying a laptop, or taking out a loan to buy one, can reclaim VAT. Other education charities could follow this route: the British Dyslexia Association springs to mind.
Becta, the government agency responsible for ICT in education, has published a report called Dyslexia and ICT: Building on Success, looking at how computers can help learners of all ages to cope with their dyslexia. There is a comprehensive review of software programs with case studies.
Not all subject areas are covered; the report concentrates on literacy, mathematics and foreign languages. The report has mixed views on integrated learning systems. Its author, Sally McKeown, says: "ILSs were not designed with specific learning difficulties in mind. This means that the groupings of the words in each session may be inappropriate and using them can even be counter-productive, if the intention was to increase the learner's confidence and self-esteem."
For teaching and practising spelling, McKeown has much more support for programs that are based on phonics and have been designed for dyslexics. This poses a question for schools that have invested in an ILS as a computer support system for pupils with special educational needs.
Dyslexia and ICT is available from Becta, pound;6.50. Tel 01203 416994 www.becta.org.uk.