Lap of the gods

7th January 2005 at 00:00
In recent years, laptops have become the ubiquitous classroom tool, Pete Roythorne talks to ICT professionals about the benefits and the pitfalls

The laptop is now firmly postioned at the centre of today's media-rich learning experience, with many teachers dependent on them. In some schools it has become inconceivable that they should ever have to teach without them. But like any new technology, it has brought with it not only its own benefits, but also its problems.

"Laptops are far more delicate than desktops and prone to battery issues, power supply problems, and screen breakages," says John Thornley, ICT adviser for the Isle of Man. "The most important thing for us is reliability. For this reason, we ensure all our laptops have three-year warranty agreements. This is about as much as laptops can be expected to deliver before becoming unreliable and outdated."

Most laptop users agree that battery life presents one of the biggest headaches. And schools have come up with different ways of tackling this issue. "It's touch and go as to whether most batteries can manage all-day usage, so you need to make sure you have technology for recharging in the classrooms - one obvious solution is trolleys," says Chris Seviour, Hertfordshire Grid for Learning co-ordinator. "If your battery isn't up to the job then your laptop becomes fixed, and surely this defeats the object of having a mobile unit."

However, Peter Blow, head of science at Freman College, Buntingford, has a different take on the subject. He believes that as laptops should last longer than batteries it is sensible to assume that they will be used predominantly on mains. "A mains laptop is available all day," he explains.

"Also, take the battery out and the laptop weighs much less. Lots of money is wasted trying to keep batteries charged: the trollies are expensive.

Furthermore, a battery allows a laptop to be put away while switched on causing it to overheat and damage the main board. In short, batteries create problems rather than solving them."

But people like Sean O'Sullivan, ICT co-ordinator and deputy head at Frank Wise School in Banbury, Oxford, believe flexibility is the key benefit.

"Laptops allow teachers to take their work where they need it rather than being tied to physical spaces. For the pupils, it provides similar advantages; in an special needs school, spatial freedom can be important for providing more options for access to disabled people, and for disabled staff."

Providing you stay on the school network, this should not pose a problem.

However, with teachers often taking their laptops home and connecting to the internet, this flexibility can mean trouble if your network security isn't completely water-tight.

"Security can be a major problem," says Hertfordshire's Seviour. "One of our schools had a problem when teachers came back from holiday, connected their laptops to the schools network and promptly distributed a virus on to the network. It's important to make sure that all your machines have up-to-date virus protection."

Seviour suggests that maybe schools could follow the example of many companies by locking down their laptops so they can only do what is associated with the person's job. At the end of the day the machines belong to the school and are loaned to the teachers; they are not the teachers'

property. "This way may stifle creativity," explains Chris, "but giving free rein can damage the stability of your network and raise your maintenance cost. Schools need to balance these two things when making their decision."

So how do you choose a machine that's going to give three or four years'

service without becoming obsolete. The simple answer is to get as high a specification as possible at the time of purchase.

Wireless connectivity is rapidly becoming essential. In fact, for Blow, this is more important than battery life: "These days I would go for built-in 802.11g (now the standard), this is usually only an extra pound;20. I would suggest a minimum of 512Mb memory and a reasonable processor."

Blow continues that with the increased use of video, a minimum capacity 30Gb hard drive is probably a good idea, and a CD writer. All this, he says, should cost under pound;750 - and that will include a cable lock and security marking.

O'Sullivan rates connectivity high on the list too. "If you're doing a lot of video work you need to have FireWire as well as USB, it's also important for high-speed external drives," he says. "Our most recent needs include DVD burner and Bluetooth - so that you can use phones for photos.

"You need to set the initial cost against the overall long-term benefits of the spec you go for; FireWire, Bluetooth, DVD-R and perhaps even wireless networking may not be everyday tasks to you now, but you can be confident that within a year you'll be trying to add at least one of these to what seemed a cheaper bargain at the time," he continues.

Then, of course, you enter the great Mac or PC debate. The Isle of Man makes a point of offering both to its teachers and has amassed considerable experience in their use in the classroom.

Obviously, if you're going for Mac you need to be sure the software is available - although these days this is increasingly becoming less of an issue. "With careful planning," says Thornley, "this is quite easy to achieve - for example using FileMaker Pro in preference to Microsoft Access." Offering both platforms, says Thornley, has put them in a very strong position to chose the best educational solutions regardless of platform.

Thornley notes some major difference between the two platforms: "The Apple model used is more reliable than the PC equivalent. Set-up time for PC laptops can take four to five times longer than for the Apple," he explains. "Macs are, as a result, cheaper to maintain and require fewer technicians by a ratio of at least 1:2. However, PC laptops provide better integration with administration systems, but this is far from an insurmountable problem.

O'Sullivan is another comfirmed Mac addict. "Macs are simpler to learn how to use, more consistent between programs, easier to network and set up with printers and other peripherals," he says. "Plus the iLife software supplied free is so well designed and integrated that it makes a creative soul out of any of us!"

However, Blow is less effusive. "Unfortunately, you need to choose PC," he says. "Macs are functionally better, but offer less value for money and compatibility with the likely equipment at home. Video 8 on PC gives near-Mac video manipulation and this is the next big thing."

Anne Suggett, administrator for the Essex e-Learning Foundation, says she spent a long time looking at different laptops, with hands-on trials of the machines and packages. "We looked at spec, reliability, robustness, price and the value for money represented by the warranty and insurance," she explains.

However, the final decision was a question of existing expertise. "We felt it was important to build on the PC experience the county has developed over the past five years. We have a considerable support network in place for schools and as most are already familiar and highly competent in PC use this was felt to be the best option."

* For advice on why you should use Tablet PCs see Jack Kenny's article on our website ( Also see Motion 1400 review overleaf.

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