Norway does the byte thing

8th March 1996 at 00:00
A Norwegian pilot study is aiming to get pupils working almost entirely on computer. Simon Townley reports

Seventh grade pupils at a state school in the Norwegian community of Tj?me returned from the Christmas break to find that from now on all their work was to be done on computer. The school had started a three-year experiment with the 13-year-olds: out went the books, blackboard and pencils, and in came computer terminals, keyboards and Internet connections.

Already teachers at Tj?me Ungdomsskole have reported a spirited response from pupils. Project leader, Anne Torunn Dalen Halvorsen, says: "The children are all very motivated. We can't get them to go during break times. They want to stay on the computers. One of the teachers told me she was giving a grammar lesson and has never seen the children so interested.

"We are going to use the computers as a tool for all our subjects. The children will be using them all day and as much as possible."

Tjome is at the tip of the Oslo fjord, about a two-hour drive from the capital. It is not particularly isolated, or an unusually wealthy community by Norwegian standards. Standards in oil-rich Norway are high, however, and the local education authority has been able to put 2.5 million Krone (Pounds 280,000) into the project, which involves 54 children in two classes of 27.

Until Christmas, Tj?me Ungdomsskole had only a handful of relatively old computers, used for optional computer studies. Now new Compaq Pentium 75 machines have been bought for each seventh grade pupil, complete with Microsoft software, CD-Rom drives and Internet connections.

This is the first such scheme in Norway. The Ministry of Education contributed to the fundingand hopes to start similar projects elsewhere. There has been significant interest, including a spot on national TV.

The initiative came from parents and teachers who decided the school could be improved by using information technology systematically as a tool for learning and communication.

The school will analyse changes in the role of teachers resulting from the introduction of computers which are expected increasingly to take on a teaching function - through multiple-choice tests, by providing the correct answers to exercises and by giving pupils the chance to go back over their work.

"The tasks in the programs are presented together with the illustrations and alternative answers," explains Anne Halversen. "This is connected to hints and key texts. These are again presented as illustrations or with references to other sources. In the end, pupils get help with tasks they don't manage and hints about how to work."

Teachers hope pupils will use the computers for active learning through multimedia and the Internet. "The most important aspect of the project will be to look at how pupils get information, what sources are used, how information is converted into knowledge and how knowledge is communicated and shared, " says Halversen.

The school has yet to try many of the possibilities. Art, for example, still uses paint and brushes, and swipe cards for registration is still some way off.

"We are going to follow the seventh grade for three years to see how they do," she explains. There are still problems to be ironed out, particularly how pupils will sit their exams. They will not take the equivalent of GCSEs until 1999: as yet no decision has been taken on whether they will be able to sit them using computers. "We are just starting to discuss with the government what happens in three years' time," Halversen says. "There will need to be some special arrangements. At the moment, certainly, it would not be possible to sit an exam using a computer."

A big problem is the lack of educational software in Norwegian. The education authorities have been hard at work translating programs into Norwegian. A complete syllabus for 13-year-olds is not yet available, but is not far off. A small computer firm is also going to write new programs by working with pupils and teachers at Tj?me Ungdomsskole.

The children will still need textbooks for their homework as the school is trying to avoid putting pressure on families to buy a computer for home use. The children can, however, use the school's computers in the evenings, and the school is holding open evenings several times a week for pupils to learn more about the computers. Parents and grandparents are encouraged to come and learn as well - especially women.

Halvorsen says: "We will hold one open evening a week just for the girls and for women. It is said that girls are not so interested in computers as the boys, so we wanted to give them something extra." The girls are being given access to e-mail in school one year before boys can use the facility.

Now the Norwegians are looking for an English school to join an e-mail pen-pal scheme. "We particularly want to team up with an English school which shares our interest in getting the girls motivated in the use of computers," says Halvorsen.

Not surprisingly, the school has found that many of its pupils are more experienced at using computers than the staff. "The pupils are teaching the teachers," she says. However, the children need training in how to use the technology for specific tasks and there is a need for back-up support when computers crash or stall.

The school has taken on an extra staff member to deal with technical problems. "He is there in class with the children and the teacher whenever the computers are in use," says Halvorsen. Other staff are also receiving training so things won't fall apart when the specialist is away.

Halvorsen is not worried that pupils might "cheat" during lessons, even though the computers are linked in a network. "They can send messages to each other and ask for answers. They will talk about other things than lessons as well, but that is OK," she says. "It is good that they can ask each other about problems. They learn more from that than from the teacher telling them things all the time."

Information on the school is available, in Norwegian, on the Internet: http:dyret.hive.nokommunetjoemetusk

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