Lap them up;Hardware

16th April 1999 at 01:00
A portables pilot project has not only enhanced skills, but also generated a great deal of enthusiam for computers in education. Hugh John reports

What a difference a year makes. In March 1998, 100 school representatives attended the first UKAnytime Anywhere Learning (AAL)conference organised by the project's principal sponsor, Microsoft, in Brighton. Of these, 28 schools and colleges went on to take part in the pilot programme to equip students with laptop computers: seven primaryjunior schools, one LEA middle, five LEA secondary, five GM secondary, eight technology colleges and two independent secondaries. A year later at a second conference in Blackpool, teachers from a further 250 institutions were presented with the pilot project's trials, tribulations and successes.

Future potential participants in AAL's second phase also had the opportunity to hear the initial findings of an independent report on the first, commissioned by Microsoft and undertaken by a team from Lancaster University. Microsoft and laptop providers Acer, Fujitsu and Hewlett Packard prudently stood back and - introductions and conclusions aside - left the platform to teachers, ICT administrators and teachers involved in its first stage.

So many "visions" were shared with the audience and with such fervour that, coupled with the sincere evangelism of some speakers, one wondered if this was an educational get-together or a revivalist meeting - for Billy Graham read Billy Gates. What should not be understated, however, is the sheer enthusiasm that rolled off the podium. Not only from ICT tyros at the outset of their careers, but from older staff who clearly saw the educational advantages of ICT in general, and students equipped with laptops in particular. Yes, there have been obstacles, was the underlying message, but they can be overcome.

Practical difficulties included funding and equality of use. Indeed, according to the Lancaster University evaluation, these two issues are inextricably linked. Schools have come up with a number of innovative solutions to encompass leasing, the setting up of charitable trusts, sponsorships and VAT-free purchase schemes. Generally, the schools were pleased with the technical support they received and the survey suggested that when the cost of insurance, maintenance and other ancillary equipment was accounted for, there had been no comparable deals available at the price.

Contrary to expectation, the two areas that did not pose undue problems were security and battery life. Although schools provided extra lockers for the machines, fears of widespread laptop larceny proved unfounded. It was also found that where laptop batteries were properly charged and managed (with spares), pupils could expect a full day's use in class.

Don Passey has evaluated ICT courses for 10 years and led the evaluation team. He suggests that two of the commonest student concerns were the laptops' weight and "the dependency thing" (if a laptop goes down it's a problem because the child and teacher are dependent upon them). This has led some schools to take up the suppliers' suggestion that spare laptops are kept on a ratio of one or two for every 100 purchased.

Educationally, clear benefits are emerging. Not surprisingly, the obvious area of improvement and enhancement was in ICT skills, for students and teachers. Passey was surprised by the speed at which teachers familiarised themselves with laptop skills and, even more, by the rapidity with which these have been translated into good classroom practice. "What's happened is we have something like 95 per cent of teachers who've seen they can immediately do something."

What of the future? The continuing success of AAL is dependent on two factors. In the short term, a shifting nexus of cost, access and technology should conspire to keep it on track. For example, there are strong rumours that one of the big supermarket chains will be selling multimedia laptops for less than pound;500 before the year is out. Apple is also thought to be on the verge of launching a low-cost portable machine. Coupled with the government's stated intent to bring down the cost of such goods in the UK, developments like these should drive down costs to ensure that schools can get the best possible deals.

According to a recent ICM poll, almost half the UK population will be online by the new millennium. With internet service providers such as Dixons, Tesco, LineOne, VirginNet and BT ClickFree now offering free services, home, school and community links should be strengthened and significantly cheaper.

Advances in ICT, like longer-life Lithium batteries and infra-red connectivity are already facilitating the use of laptops in schools. But perhaps the most interesting new development will be wireless communication. At Sawtry Community College, for example, one of the original 28 AAL pilot establishments, laptop users are able to connect to the college network anywhere within the transmission range, whether that be the library, playing field or - when the range is extended to 17km in September - a village hall or front room.

Longer-term, as AAL gains momentum - and Chris Poole, Microsoft's education development manager, is confident it will - and reaches the critical mass where pilot schemes become translated into large scale projects, the equity issue will assume greater significance. At present, as the Lancaster survey shows, any tensions between the haves and have-nots are lessened by the pilot nature of the programme. According to Passey, pupils without laptops have been asked for their understanding, agreement and co-operation in what is, so far, a trial.

Whether AAL is replicable on a larger scale depends in part on school managers' resourcefulness and, presumably, the willingness of educational bodies such as LEAs to support such a scheme. A key theme to emerge from the past 12 months is that the innovative use of technology needs imaginative funding strategies. Let's hope this happens - after all, if Anytime Anywhere Learning really does offer what the Lancaster survey referred to as "potentially rich opportunities for the educational future", shouldn't these opportunities be enjoyed by everyone?

The survey:key findings

The outcomes identified from this study point to potentially rich opportunities for the educational future.

Many pupils are gaining individually from having laptops and many are able to identify personal learning benefits. Teachers with limited ICT experience were able to become competent users of some of the software within three months of having a laptop.

Staff who want to develop ICT would be well advised to obtain a laptop. However, having a portable computer in a lesson does not guarantee its use. Pupils often require encouragement to use laptops.

In most instances, the issues of equity and finance have been inextricably linked. Equality of access and provision will be a major issue.

A fully-charged laptop battery will easily give pupils a full day's use in school. Parents are likely to have high expectations of a project - the form and frequency of communication between homes and schools should be negotiated at the outset.

The survey also showed that:

* Social outcomes for some schools have been significant.

* Standard laptops are too heavy for children to carry.

* The use of lighter machines should be strongly considered.

* The laptop providers have often given high levels of support to schools.

Information on the Anytime Anywhere Learning scheme, including the Lancaster University survey, can be downloaded from

* Lightweight laptops reviewed pp32-33

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