Life in the bus lane;Case study:Isle of Man

16th April 1999 at 01:00
They're not slow coaches on the Isle of Man when it comes to using computers. Chris Johnston clambers aboard the bus

As the advent of cheap air travel has made holidaying in the sunny climes of southern Europe more affordable, fewer people are choosing destinations closer to home. The English seaside resorts that flourished a century ago now attract considerably fewer visitors and the same fate has befallen the Isle of Man, which rivalled Blackpool as a holiday destination in its heyday.

However, the island, which lies in the Irish Sea between Britain and Ireland, has used its status as a self-governing, dependent territory to set low taxes and encourage the growth of business and financial services.

Information and communications technology (ICT) is very much a part of the finance industry, so it makes sense that the Isle of Man's government is striving to ensure that its school leavers are computer literate. Despite having a population of just 70,000 in its 227 square miles (little more than one-third the size of Greater London), the island has set some very ambitious targets for ICT in education. All of the 35 primary schools, five secondaries and one further education college will be connected to the National Grid for Learning by July, three years ahead of the UK government's deadline. All teachers and pupils from key stage 2 will have an email address by July next year (the UK targets are 50 and 75 per cent respectively by 2002) and, by July 2001, all pupils will leave school with an ICT qualification.

If geographical size were to mirror ICT budgets, the Isle of Man would spend pound;1 million against the UK's pound;1 billion over the next three years. Yet the figure is about six times that amount.

The aim, according to Ralph Cowin, the director of education, is to ensure that the island's young people have the skills to work in the financial services industry, as well as compete on the world stage. A more immediate goal is to use ICT to raise the quality of teaching and learning in schools.

The island's isolation is as much an advantage as a disadvantage, according to John Cain, the deputy director of education. He says it is easier and faster to achieve consensus about policy direction than it is on the mainland, and schools do not experience variations in funding due to differences of status. The education department has control over schools in a way similar to that once exercised by English local authorities.

This has meant that all schools - not just those with visionary headteachers or IT co-ordinators - have benefited from the island's forward thinking. For the last six years, Manx teachers have been able to obtain a computer through a departmental leasing programme, with payments taken out of their salaries. The scheme has been very successful, with about 75 per cent of the 700 teachers taking advantage of the offer. Cowin believes it has had a considerable impact: "It's changed the culture, and made it more acceptable for children's work to be presented in an IT format."

The heavy investment in in-service ICT training has also shifted attitudes. The Computer Bus, which went into service in September (see opposite), is the next step in the strategy. John Thornley, the education department's ICT adviser, adds that a National Foundation for Educational Research survey two years ago found that Manx teachers were much more confident with IT than those in other parts of the UK.

The island is discontinuing its discounted purchase scheme because, by September next year, each teacher will have been given a laptop computer. Every headteacher already has a portable. Even more ambitious is a plan to do the same for post-16 students. "This will lift us on to a new plane - if every student has a portable computer, teachers will be able to move on to new ways of delivering classes," Cowin says. "It really is the only way to revolutionise teaching and learning."

By September 2000, the department aims to have a ratio of one computer less than three years old for every five secondary students, and for every seven in primary schools. In addition, every classroom will be networked, with access to the Internet and the island's education intranet. Although some schools do have separate ICT sessions in their timetable, many are striving to use computers across the curriculum.

George Quayle, head of St Ninian's High, says the school is well on the way to integrating ICT in subject areas. For example, year 10 English pupils doing a project about persuasive language use the technology to produce a brochure and a presentation "selling" a company. Jim Hunter, the ICT co-ordinator, says the exercise develops students' skills in two subjects simultaneously.

An indication of the strategy's success is the fact that almost every pupil obtains an IT qualification - either a basic skills certificate or a short or full course worth half or one GSCE - despite very little curriculum time being devoted exclusively to IT. As John Thornley explains: "We're trying to give our students the broadest possible exposure to IT so that they leave school with a set of transferable skills, not skills that are specific to any particular area."

The Isle of Man has also used its independence to deviate from the path chosen by the British Government. Most noticeable is the presence of Apple computers in its schools. Although a few have bought PCs, the vast majority of machines are Macs, with iMacs boosting numbers further.

The department has developed its own administration system, called IMP, for primary schools. Graham Kinrade, head of Fairfield Junior School in Douglas, co-wrote the program with Thornley. He says its beauty lies in the ability to tailor it to each school's needs. It takes about 30 minutes to show teachers how to use the system, which they can access in their school on an iMac in the staffroom. It lets them obtain information without having to go through the secretary, and allows them to input data.

The Isle of Man's spending on ICT for education might be courtesy of its buoyant economy, but it does reflect a desire to equip its young people with the skills for the new century. It is also a pragmatic investment in the future that could well help continue this island's prosperity.

It's such a good idea that it's odd more local authorities are not doing it. After all, many schools - especially primaries - cannot afford enough computers, meaning that pupils do not get individual use of a machine during whole-class teaching.

One of the Isle of Man's innovative solutions to the problem has been to make the computers mobile and bring them to the class. The Computer Bus, as the name suggests, is a mobile classroom containing 20 Apple G3 computers with flat screens, an electronic whiteboard and ISDN Internet connection.

The idea for the bus came from Alex Townsend, who was head of information and communications technology at the Isle of Man's largest school, St Ninian's High School. He believed a mobile classroom was a good way around the inability to use a program with a whole class because of a lack of equipment.

A bus was obtained from the island's transport company, which last year was pensioning off its fleet of Leyland buses, in service since 1977. Sponsorship from BT-owned Manx Telecom and David Castle Tours, as well as technical support from Advanced Systems, permitted its transformation into the Computer Bus. Townsend is now on indefinite secondment as the advisory teacher who works with classes on the bus. He also drives it around the island.

Since hitting the road in September, the bus has made two-day visits to each of the Isle of Man's 35 primary schools. Townsend runs different activities with each year group, though years four to six have all been using a control program called Flowol (from Data Harvest). Pupils write simple programs that make lights flash on a zebra crossing, for example. He says the Computer Bus has helped pupils grasp the program much more quickly than if they had only used their classroom systems. "All our year fives and sixes, and most of the fours, are now fully capable of using Flowol," he says.

It is not just pupils who are gaining help from the Computer Bus. After classes finish, teachers go on board for training sessions with Townsend. As well as explaining the programs used, he also gives advice on good classroom practice, such as preparing templates or organising group activities. "At the end of the day, you get two for the price of one - the children learn the program and teachers are better able to deliver this after the bus has gone," Townsend says.

He believes the bus has had a demonstrable impact on some schools, particularly the smaller and more isolated ones. One primary had made very little use of Flowol before his visit but, two days later, children were using it on almost every computer in the school. "They were arguing the toss about the secrets of traffic lights or whether level-crossing barriers should be up or down. And as I drove away, I realised we had changed the culture for the better," Townsend reflects.

Some schools have enjoyed a return visit and he says the pupils' computer skills have clearly improved. "The children get on, I give them instructions about the task and they just crack on. It's obviously made an impression on them."

The bus's second island tour is now under way, with the Internet as the focus. As well as using email and web browsers, Townsend plans to get pupils publishing on the Net. By using templates, the work can be posted almost immediately and pupils can show their work off on their home computer or on paper.

Ways of using the bus with secondary schools are also being considered, such as taking it on field trips, so that students can collect data and input it on location. Using it with community and youth groups is also a possibility.

Townsend's job is somewhat different from the position he held at St Ninian's. The days sometimes involve setting out at 7.30am and not returning until 6pm. And then there is preparation for the next day's sessions as well as updating the website. But it's clear that he relishes the role. "No two days are the same, and it's a tremendous opportunity to experience different schools and students."

Despite its age, the bus has proved very reliable and has so far been off the road for only two days - due to a failed suspension component. Townsend said concerns that the equipment would not cope with being trundled around have proved unfounded too.

The Computer Bus is not the only venture of its kind. Some schools in England use Computer Gym, a franchised mobile classroom for IT teaching, but this costs about pound;500 a day and has only eight terminals. Townsend says: "The Computer Bus is a good community project that benefits thousands of children and teachers in a tangible way." He might be biased, but he's right.

Computer Bus Data Harvest Computer Gym

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