The convenience of laptops is helping small community schools get up to speed with online technology. Louise Goldsbury reports on how Kent LEA is making the most of the learning grid.
The new deal for teachers to receive money towards buying their own computers is welcomed by those who have been using free laptops at home for the last two years. In Kent, funding from the first year of the National Grid for Learning (NGFL) initiative was used to provide a laptop computer for each of its primary and special schools, thus gently introducing teachers to IT.
"Rather than networking schools straight away, we thought they should try out the Internet to see if it was appropriate," said Linda Shaw, NGFL adviser and lead officer of the scheme.
The package included one RM multimedia laptop, two Internet accounts, a full curriculum and staff software package (Office and RM Window Box suites), printer, training and technical support. The equipment was shared between two teachers who each used it for six months in the classroom and at home.
Over the next three years, to meet the government target of 2002, the schools are becoming networked and multiple access, keeping up with the county's online secondary schools.
Peter Banbury, ICT projects manager, believes it is important to put teachers and learning first. "We felt that staff were vital, and the laptop enabled them to take it home and do what keen teachers do - learn about the Internet on Sunday afternoons. This was pretty hectic as schools were not really ready for this jump. However, had we not started then, some schools would not have started yet, giving them only one or two years to get up to speed on Internet use." Other LEAs are realising that having connected a quarter of schools in the first year, the schools connecting in the last year will struggle to catch up.
Andrew Lam, deputy headteacher, Whitfield Primary School, helped train some of the Kent teachers. "They brought their laptops to one of the computer centres and learned things such as how to use the Web and email," he said. "All of a sudden, a small village school was able to get acces to such computing power and training. They were very appreciative and even those who were frightened at first soon found no problem with it."
As part of the Kent NGFL initiative, primary schools were encouraged to publish websites dedicated to raising standards in literacy, numeracy and in ICT. One of the sites which was used in the teacher training is Infant Explorer (www.naturegrid.org.ukinfant), created by Jo Leech. IT co-ordinator at Sellindge Primary School. Aimed at early primary, it contains interactive stories based on environmental themes, particularly the life of swans.
"My idea was based on big books, but on the Web, where you can click on animations and hear sounds," explained Leech. "The teacher reads the book from the laptop and children can come up to click on the screen. It's a great way of getting very young children to use the laptop and gain confidence."
Staff agreed that the website should centre on pupils' work, involving them at different developmental stages, from discussing a site map sketched on paper, through to design and editing. Over two terms, the pupils created pages on the laptop using templates in Adobe PageMill.
The big books are designed to be used within the literacy hour, using keywords, questions for children, a pinboard for pupils' work and literacy links. Students are invited to email Sebastian Swan, with Leech replying under her persona to about 20 children per week from Brazil, Saudi Arabia, Hong Kong and Canada. Every day more than 60 schools visit the site, which is updated weekly with pupils' work.
The second stage of Kent's NGFL project is open to a bidding process where schools must prove their readiness to be networked and receive further staff training. "The advantage of the laptop for schools scheme is that now all our teachers have an idea of what the Internet is, and what it can do for them. They know the vocabulary and have a couple of teachers in every school trained up," said Banbury. "By having substantial access to a computer and the right software for personal use, I believe teachers can move into Internet-era IT very rapidly."