Look, no wires

21st July 2000 at 01:00
Chris Johnston looks at how a cableless world can boost learning and save your school budget. Photography by Neil Turner

t is lunchtime and the teacher tells her Year 6 class to pack up and get ready to go outside and enjoy the fine weather. Moans break out across the room. What's happening - a class that does not want to stop work and start playing?

This is an everyday occurrence at St John's school in Tunbridge Wells, Kent. And what was riveting them to their chairs? Looking at websites on the Internet - not on one computer in the corner, but on their own laptops, which are on the desk in front of each pupil.

There are no wires connecting the computers to the wall: internal batteries provide the power. But how can pupils dial into the Internet without being plugged into a telephone line?

St John's claims to be the first primary school in Britain to have installed a wireless computer network; the wires have been replaced by radio waves. This means that instead of having to run cables throughout the buildings to wherever the computers are based, three small boxes fixed to walls send and receive information from the school's main computer, and the Internet, to a "card" in each pupil's laptop.

Andy Blundell, the head-teacher, decided a wireless network and a class set of laptops was the answer to many of the problems faced by the 630-pupil school. These included having no space for a computer suite, and a need to improve the information and communications technology facilities (which had been criticised by the Office for Standards in Education), and boost student attainment.

Monica Pell, the ICT co-ordinator at St John's and a Year 6 teacher, says the arrival of the network and the Acer laptops, supplied by Dudley-based Lateral Thinking last December, has made a genuine difference to the way they work.

She used to face the challenge of trying to get a whole class to complete an ICT task with just one computer - a problem that confronts many teachers. When every child has their own computer, all can work simultaneously on a project, improving comprehension and maintaining interest and enthusiasm. Pell uses a projector to show an image from her laptop to the class and so introduce a new topic to them. Pupils then work through the task at their own pace.

After her class had finished a literacy exercise on the computers that involved finding words that described a character, they switched to looking at websites on the Net. No instructions were needed because every child knew how to close icrosoft Word and switch to the web browser. (Only sites that have been vetted by St John's, and other schools, are accessible through the Pavilion Internet service, but there are thousands they can visit.) Even with 30 children using the network, the information travels at a rocket-like pace compared with a wired network.

Each year group gets to use the computers once a week, but it is clear that many pupils would like to do so all day, every day. However, they do get to use them on weekends through a leasing scheme the school has set up. They cost pound;5 to rent for the two days and pound;12 a week during holidays. The leasing is a vital component of the financing arrangements - about pound;10,000 is expected to be made this way and more than pound;1,000 has been earned already. External organisations can also hire the computers for training sessions.

Blundell says 20 to 25 machines go home each weekend. Parents have to pick up the laptop to minimise the risk of it going missing on the way home, but all are insured. The 26 teachers are also benefiting from being able to borrow the computers, which are helping them to complete the Lottery-financed New Opportunities Fund training in using ICT in the classroom.

St John's has just received a grant to cover the cost of boosting the range of the radio signal, linking the infant site - about one mile away from the junior site - to the network so they can also use the laptops. It will also enable pupils to access the school network from home because the stronger signal will transmit up to four kilometres away. "When a child takes a laptop home, instead of plugging it into their telephone socket, the wireless technology will let them safely surf the Net without tying the line up or costing them more," Blundell says. "They will have unlimited access, 24 hours a day, seven days a week."

Students also can access any work stored on the school's main computer. A wireless network can even save money. If St John's gets funding to construct a new infant building on its main site, the classrooms won't need sockets for the computers to plug into. This, Blundell says, will save thousands of pounds.

St John's aims to become the centre of a virtual learning community. It may be the first primary school to achieve this, but it certainly won't be the last as the technological revolution rolls on.

For more details contact: Lateral Thinking, www.lthinking.co.uk, Tel: 01384 837 900;Acer computers, www.acer.co.uk, Tel: 01753 699 200;and Pavilion Internet, www.pavilion.co.uk.

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