Plugging the gaps

14th November 1997 at 00:00
Merlin John sees prize software and a super-tough laptop at the NASEN show Special needs software is resting on a plateau and going through a period of "consolidation and plugging the gaps, rather than offering revolutionary departures from the norm".

That was the view of the judges at last week's annual NASEN (National Association for Special Educational Needs) software awards, presented at the Special Needs London Show. The awards, sponsored by Lloyds TSB, are organised by the National Council for Educational Technology, with support from NASEN and the Cenmac special needs centre in south London.

The programs that took the award - for broad application across the curriculum - were First Keys, from Widgit, and Pages, from Semerc.

First Keys helps children develop keyboard skills, an issue often neglected in schools technology. It impressed the judges with its "creativity", its "support for learning in a whole range of imaginative ways" and for its "high level of adaptability to teachers' needs".

Pages is an extremely powerful word processor for Acorn and Windows PCs. As reading and writing are central to learning in schools, the judges felt that "the powerful additional facilities for easy text and image manipulation make Pages exceptional in its ability to start reluctant pupils on the road to literacy".

Packages that help children with disabilities get access to software programs through the use of special switches were also praised. Commended by the judges were the Doorway Classroom Pack, from Learning Through Computing ("outstanding as an introduction to switch use for the teacher new to this area"), and Hotspots Resources 1, from the ACE Centre ("full of good ideas for enabling switch users to access a range of programs that are usually inaccessible").

u While the number of information technology companies with stands at the annual NASEN exhibition is still relatively small, their ingenuity and rapid acceptance of new technologies continue to surprise and impress. Paul Nuttall, of Semerc, demonstrated their new laptop by punching its screen and dropping it on the floor. Of course there was no damage because the machine was developed by Panasonic for the armed forces. Apparently, Semerc had some difficulty convincing the makers of the parallels between a war zone and a school, but they eventually accepted that military standards for drop-testing and water resistance were just as relevant in the classroom. So, Semerc is now selling the machine - the Semerc Panasonic CF-25 Laptop - to education.

Despite its rugged designer case and handle, the CF-25 is a fully-fledged Pentium Windows PC (Pounds 1,775 for the basic model). And, although it sailed happily through its bruising demonstration, Paul Nuttall warned: "Just because it's tough, it doesn't mean you have to bash it around. They used the analogy of a car with airbags: you don't smash the car into a wall just to check whether the airbags work."

First Keys, five-machine licence Pounds 40, site licence Pounds 80 (PConly) , Widgit, 102 Radford Road, Leamington Spa CV31 1LF. Tel: 01926 885303.

Pages, Pounds 49 for single user (Acorn and PC), from Semerc, 1 Broadbent Road, Watersheddings, Oldham OL1 4LB. Tel: 0161 627 2381 Doorway Classroom Pack, Pounds 75 for single user (Acorn only), Learning Through Computing, 3 Relugas Road, Edinburgh EH9 2NE. Tel: 0131 662 1881 Hotspots Resources 1, Pounds 5 for disc, Pounds 15 for manual and resources (Acorn, PC soon), The ACE Centre, Ormerod School, Waynflete Road, Headington, Oxford OX3 8DD. Tel: 01865 763508A report on the NASEN Book Awards appeared in The TES last week

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