It's in the bag...

6th January 2006 at 00:00
Forget writable CD-Roms, Zips, floppies and memory sticks, for teachers the carrier bag remains their storage device of choice. You only have to visit the annual BETT Show at Olympia, London, to see how desperately they reach out to grasp the bags that exhibitors so generously give away. It's true that the show provides other freebies. On a typical visit, the penny-conscious teacher should be able to harvest enough ballpoints to furnish her classes for a year and enough mouse mats to carpet a Barratt starter home. But these are luxury items. Carrier bags are an absolute necessity.

As someone whose working day doesn't involve anything more physically demanding than clicking a mouse and kicking the printer, I have nothing but sympathy for the primary teacher who lives opposite. I watch her through my study window as she loads the boot of her Fiat Uno in the morning with carrier bags brimming over with exercise books, ring binders, A-4 folders and wall displays. The poor woman doesn't need a classroom assistant, she needs a Sherpa.

On the opposite side of the road, the suit who is something big in banking goes to work with a dinky attache case barely big enough to hold a modestly filled lunchtime panini. His young daughter, on the other hand, creeping like snail unwillingly to school, is barely visible beneath a lime and lemon backpack that is almost as big as she is.

That shouldn't come as a surprise: Back Care, the medical charity, says that it has come across cases where school children were carrying bags that were the equivalent of their own body weight. It might deserve a medal, or at least a Blue Peter badge, but it's the sort of child suffering you would think had been outlawed in the Factory Act of 1842. The poor girl might be on course for as many A-levels as Carol Vorderman, but, by the time she gets her results, she may also have as many damaged vertebrae as the Hunchback of Notre Dame.

I risked asking teenie boppers waiting for the bus why they had to carry quite so much around. The response was a Phil Spector wall of sound as they yelled at me simultaneously. I think they were saying it's to do with too few lockers, too little time to sort themselves out between lessons, and - inevitably - too much homework.

Also in the queue, eavesdropping on the conversation, was a pasty FE student, laden with nothing bulkier than his iPod. He was even more scared of the Year Eighters than I was. On board the bus, he sidled up to me stammering, sotto voce, that he had something he wanted to show me. Regular bus users will know that this is usually the cue to find another seat. But before I could, he dug into several layers of polyester and brandished a memory stick. He told me it contained all the resources he'd need for his GNVQ course - which probably still left him with enough capacity to store every track Limp Biskit have ever recorded. Any other course materials he might need are available on the college intranet - a password and a click away.

At about 10 quid or so, a Sony 32Mb memory stick is cheaper than a backpack and can hold more - although, not admittedly a packed lunch, but I dare say Sony is working on that.

Even memory sticks seem a bit cumbersome when you consider that pupils in the 21st century shouldn't have to cart anything around. There's no need for dog-eared reams of A4 or pencil cases or even books. All the resources pupils or teachers could possibly need can be kept in digital form. The paperless school is perfectly feasible.

Indeed at Empire High School in Arizona they've bitten the bullet and ditched all their textbooks. Curriculum materials are online, and pupils word process their written work. It not only does wonders for their vertebrae but also, according to the headteacher, increases their motivation and ensures that resources can be kept constantly updated at little or no extra cost.

A Virtual Learning Environment (VLE, or learning platform) enables a school community to share resources online, to set up all manner of IMs (instant messages) and email links, to participate in forums and chat rooms and contribute to bulletin boards. Pupils can make use of it at school, at home, from their hospital bed or while bunking off - if they can find a wireless hotspot.

If your back's hurting and you want to find out more about learning platforms, visit the very comprehensive ferlbecta.org.uk or download a Becta report on the subject. (Type "VLE" into the search engine at becta.org.uk.) For an online demo of a VLE in action visit Learnwise (learnwise.net). Produced by Granada Learning it has won two awards at previous Bett Shows so they must be doing something right. Or you could check out Digital Brain (digitalbrain.com) which is the system chosen in 2001 for the London Grid for Learning.

Of course, teachers at BETT 2006 can always visit Granada at Stand E40 and Digital Brain at Stand H61 where they'll doubtless be presented with a carrier bag of promotional literature, And if the bumf doesn't win them over to learning platforms, I'm sure they'll be able to make good use of the bag.

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