Required today - the class of tomorrow

5th January 2001 at 00:00
With a number of educational establishments often spending upwards of pound;1 million or more on ICT, John Davitt ponders why more thought and consultation isn't put into its selection

Soon we will have spent close to pound;1.7 billion on ICT in schools, yet we are still strangely bankrupt when it comes to sharing radical new ideas for its use in shaping the classroom of the future. In places, the National Grid for Learning (NGFL) echoes like an empty shopping mall - somebody asked a question in an NGFL English forum in August and they are still waiting for an answer.

Where we should have a Napster-like forum of connected machines heaving with the exchange of good ideas and radical thoughts, we instead have the digital equivalent of silence. There are many pockets of brilliant work documented on websites established by passionate teachers, but they are peripheral when they should be mainstream. The truth is that building learning communities and developing a vision for the future is the work of empowered teachers not governments, however well intentioned they may be.

It is now common for schools and colleges to spend up to pound;1 million on ICT provision and talk only to computer sales people. Teachers and learners are often excluded from the debate and the result is that we shoehorn more computers into schools without concern for purposeful use or good design. As more rooms get thoughtlessly filled with large boxes and screens, multipurpose learning opportunities are banished in favour of individual screen gazing. It's time to put the learning environment first and sculpt the use of ICT to meet our overall needs.

When teachers take control of designing their own learning environments powerful transformations are possible. Vivi Lachs of the Highwire Learning Centre in Hackney, east London, recounts what steps they took in developing their City Learning Centre: "The way we design spaces reflects a philosophy of learning. In Highwire it is the learning not the computers that are central. We want students to engage with ideas and use the technology, rather than simply engaging with the technology. We want them to collaborate in groupwork."

To this end there are no rows to make the computer the focus. "We have tried to create adaptable spaces where computers are hidden and built into the structure, so that students can choose when it is appropriate to use them, and have space for any other work as well." Local carpenters were employed by the centre to build bespoke computer desks. Flat computer screens were built into the desk lids.

David Turrell, head of Sir Bernard Lovell School, Bristol, says: "Our priorities are teaching and learning. We are using ICT as a major tool in the process but it's absolutely critical that the whole environment looks right and computers are only part of the overall equation." With this approach they have just completed a new design building constructed on an open plan basis for 180 students with 60 computers. "It's a multipurpose area that supports whole-class, team teaching and individual work," says Turrell.

It is time to look beyond the assembled ranks of box-shifter PC companies, regardless of their lineage. Teachers need support as they look to a new horizon where teaching and learning are the objectives, and ICT-rich learning environments are deveoped with delight, engagement and dialogue rather than megabytes in mind.

Large, room-dominating and exclusively computer-focused approaches to ICT will soon become dinosaurs of the digital age. Tools like the diminutive Apple Cube provide stunning processing power, visual delight and can disappear under the desk if required to free space for other activities. In one 12-inch square box we have the functions previously provided by a video-edit suite and a supercomputer.

The classroom of the future is a concept to be reinvented by each individual teacher, but it is likely to feature ICT which is portable and made up of many different devices like compact computers, flat and stylish LCD screens, projectors, laptops and even mobile phones (or whatever device they become). Many manufacturers have sensed this development and compact elegant machines and flat screens are increasingly the order of the day. Effective wireless networking allowing access when needed rather than when timetabled is witnessed by the use of Acer computers at Cornwallis School and laptops at Sawtry Community College, Cambridgeshire. Acer has also just released the Ultra Slim All-In-One Veriton-FP2, a PC CD drive and an integrated 14-inch LCD screen.

Laptops are certainly becoming more affordable. The Technology Colleges Trust has negotiated a deal for all teachers to buylease high quality laptops at around pound;1 a day over three years (IBMpreview p62).

Elsewhere, the Education Rewards Consortium has developed a laptop scheme which allows parents and teachers to rent a "state of the art" Toshiba laptop for just pound;5 per week including free insurance and free warranty. If affordable means on a par with a cigarette or beer budget, the affordable computer has arrived.

Compaq now features a number of laptops, especially the powerfully compact Armada along with the stunning iPaq, a curved 15-inch high shark fin of a computer, which is neat enough to sit on a small piece of desktop, with built-in networking for less than pound;500.

Any designed environment should be fit for purpose, cost-effective and delight the eye. Taking this design rubric as a starting point why have we presided over so many computer environments which are badly laid out, expensive and instantly unappealing? Ergonomy, the study of human machine interaction, doesn't feature as a search item on any Becta, NGFL or DFEE website. That's a little odd when we are in the middle of such a massive spend. Nobody is helping schools to integrate the kit in classrooms in delightful and creative ways. The best Becta can manage is guidance for worktop depth and chair height - not enough I'm afraid.

It's time to live in your own dream not in somebody else's - even if they have a glossy catalogue. Switch on delight - trust your instinct on how your classroom and school should integrate ICT. Talk to others and find examples of what works, then go and adapt it till it suits.

It's time to leave the dark ages of the dinosaurs and build your own classroom of the future.

John Davitt's book, New Tools for Teaching and Learning describes the creative use of ICT as a tool to assist and accelerate learning. The first chapter will be available for download at from January 15.

Technology Colleges

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