Lap tip

11th February 2000 at 00:00
The Government's latest incentive scheme to retain and recruit teachers, the personal computerlaptop subsidy, is now well under way. With one bound, or at least a skills audit and bumf-fest, teachers will be freed from the oppression of paperwork, encouraged to use ICT in their lessons, and become the e-preneurs of the classroom.

Apart from obvious problems with the scheme such as the cost of maintenance and upgrades and the current chronic skills-gap, there is another set of obstacles that Santa Blunkett does not seem to have considered. This is the emphasis on every teacher having his or her own, individual, high-tech, possibly portable gizmo.

Don't get me wrong - I'm all in favour of teachers having laptops. A teacher with a laptop will be seen a lot differently by pupils. Laptops are "cool", as much status symbols and fashion accessories as mobile phones.

Gone will be the tweedy, leather-elbowed figures of yore with their sheafs of folders, registers and bundles of exercise books. Hail the fast-track net-heads with their e-books and electronic whiteboards who teach in an increasingly paperless working environment, using wireless technology and infra-red to communicate with their charges.

Why, they might even be spared the bruising conflict of 8G last thing on a Friday - let the virtual teacher beam down holographically while its real life counterpart has a well-deserved afternoon off. Down the cybercafe, of course.

But if research on schoolchildren's attitudes is anything to go by, the laptop might actually be a step in the wrong direction. Researchers at Curtin University of Technology in Western Australia have found that children given a free laptop are not overjoyed with their toys, in the end.

They are bulky to carry, and they are another piece of school equipment to worry about - a lucrative bait for older, streetwise Artful Dodgers to rp off. In Victoria, Australia, teachers have been warned that laptops can cause neck and eye strain, tendonitis, muscle spasms, and back problems. Not exactly the kind of bright, new, high-tech tomorrow our masters have envisaged.

Which is why I would like to make a modest proposal - let every teacher in the land be given a palmtop.

I use mine for everything. It's my registers, my mark book and my diary. I use it for making appointments for parents' evenings and worksheets. I do not have Internet capability, but with a good desktop and a well-furnished computer suite at school, I don't need one. And, of course, plenty of models on the market do allow for e-mail and web-browsing.

Many now have infra-red data transfer, so departmental and year meetings can be places where information can be "zapped" instead of typed, photocopied and, frequently, lost. Paper and copying bills should fall dramatically, and efficiency levels should show a corresponding rise.

But what about the functionality and specialised software requirements of, say, the music department, or the English department's demands in desktop publishing, or design and technology's technical drawing requirements? A shared departmental laptop could be the answer. Higher-function activities could be planned and trialled while the bread-and-butter of teaching is made more palatable.

With each subsidy worth up to pound;380 after tax, a saving of at least pound;100 could be made per teacher, per palmtop. The Psion Revo - 8MB, a desktop-type keyboard and internet and fax capability - is currently on offer at a bargain pound;269. And there's nothing awkward or bulky about it. Slip it into your pocket and you forget it's there.

If only it could project my hologram and take Year 8 as well. That kind of gizmo really would come in handy.

John O'Donoghue is a supply teacher currently working in Croydon


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