In the lap of learning
ANYTIME Anywhere Learning is a plant of hardy educational pedigree. AAL was first introduced in Australia in 1992. Four years later, it was successfully piloted and cultivated in 52 North American schools, 42 of them public (state) and 10 private. By 1997, 225 schools were involved and more than 20,000 pupils and teachers were using laptops as learning tools. Now Microsoft and three laptop hardware partners - Acer, Hewlett Packard and Fujitsu - have initiated the scheme in Britain. Having flourished in inner-city Harlem and rural Ohio, how will it take root in Britain's educational system?
Anytime, Anywhere Learning equips teachers and children with laptop computers which they can use in and out of the classroom and school - anytime, anywhere. The machines are loaded with Microsoft Office and children use the programs - Word, PowerPoint and Excel - to complement and augment traditional learning skills.
In the US, the programme has been funded through a variety of sources: the allocation of school budgets; parental contribution; sponsorships; direct government grants; and those entrepreneurial skills which now seem to be a prerequisite of being a head-teacher.
Of the 100 UK schools whose representatives attended the initial AAL conference in March, 28 have committed themselves to the scheme - seven primaries, one middle school, five secondaries, five grant-maintained secondaries, eight technology colleges and two independent secondaries.
It is early days, but initial reaction has been positive. Concerns over the laptops' suitability and durability have proved unfounded. Modern portables seem well capable of withstanding the rigours of school life, particularly when cocooned in a sturdy travel bag. Students soon get into the routine of recharging battery cells each evening and, even if they forget, many classrooms have an adequate supply of powerpoints.
Peter Stuart, Fujitsu business development manager, has found that parents are willing to contribute more for high-contrast screens which can be viewed from wider angles. Fully integrated models are also more popular than the modular, "slice and dice" laptops requiring users to plug in floppy disk or CD drives.
So what educational benefits are there? Michael Wood, head of Cornwallis technology college in Maidstone, Kent, says one of the prime issues is empowerment and confidence. Pupils who might not want to use larger desktop machines in busy computer suites can work on laptops at their own pace and in their own time.
Anyone who has ever been in a mixed secondary school's computer suite during free time will sympathise with a female Cornwallis pupil: "I'm not very confident about going to these bigger computers. The boys get there first. "
Children become more adventurous in their language and word selection if they are supported by software that can discreetly offer spelling and grammar options. Word's Intellisense facility is, for many children, a safety net that gives them the confidence to experiment. This enables the teacher to provide special help and attention.
So far, so good. The only quibble from students has been the laptops' weight, says Michael Woods. The key question is: "Is this a worthy educational tool, and at this price?" But, he says, with the certainty of a man who has committed a healthy portion of the school budget on 90 laptops, "it has to be very worthy".
For Ann Renouf, head of Les Landes School in Jersey, March's AAL conference was confirmation of an optimism borne of 10 years' involvement with ICT. "Every single thing that was said at that conference we had experienced in our school." Les Landes is a small community school with 175 pupils aged between five and 11, many of whose parents work in agriculture.
With the help of an interest-free three-year loan from a supportive local authority, the school was able to equip two whole classes with laptops. Previous experience with Acorn Pocket Books had generated "a tremendous surge of learning", Mrs Renouf says.
Early indications suggest that AAL UK is following the same pattern as in America, with schools introducing the scheme in a variety of ways. Chris Poole, deputy head of Highdown School in Reading, Berkshire, and one of the scheme's two mentors, ascribes these differences to the level of autonomy afforded to participants. "It's a school-led initiative. The way in which schools go about it is their own business."
There are, accordingly, some AAL classes with laptops for every student (the concentrated model) and others where only some pupils in a class have them (the dispersed model). In some schools, the laptops can be taken home, in others not.
One concern is that some of the scheme's potential will be diminished if it is implemented in a piecemeal way. Another goes to the heart of educational principles - is it fair that some students can have such potent technology while others in the same class are denied?
Microsoft is aware of this. Julian Bailey, education business development manager, has spoken of a desire to migrate from the concentrated to the dispersed model, but one must ask whether the siren song of technology has proved more alluring than equal opportunities. A case of never mind equality, feel the kit. Anytime, Anywhere?
It is a catchy phrase chiming with overtones of freedom and self-expression. Sometime, somewhere, some kids? It does not quite have the same resonance. Somehow!
Information on Anytime Anywhere Learning can be found at www.microsoft.comukeducationaal
US research findings at www.microsoft.comeducationk12aalresearch.htm