Right class notebooks at the ready

8th June 2001 at 01:00
Psion netBooks are making a big impact in primary schools as Maureen McTaggart reports. They are proving their worth for literacy and the curriculum.

Yes, you can miss. Just like this." Ellis lines up the infra-red port on his laptop with his friend Wafiq's and, leaning over the desk, instructs him:

"Press 'receive', while I press 'send'." Nothing happens. "Oh, that's because you're in Word."

Wafiq quits Word and does as instructed. Sure enough, Ellis' story of Weeping McClarnon, penned to cheer up his flu-stricken teacher, miraculously appears on the screen of Wafiq's Psion netBook laptop computer. It isn't just the effortless sending of files from one pupil's computer to another that's impressive, but the fact that these boys are seven and eight years old.

To Ellis and Wafiq, transferring work from one machine to another is, well, child's play. These seasoned computerphiles are pupils at Henry Fawcett primary school, one of five schools within the Lambeth education action zone using Psion netBooks to drive up standards in literacy and numeracy.

Teacher Jo McClarnon is proud of the way her pupils have adapted to the computer, but is at pains to point out that the netBooks are not meant to replace pen and paper. "We use traditional writing methods 50 per cent of the time, and I don't think computers will ever replace writing, but they do provide a great opportunity for children and teachers to work on their ICT skills," she says.

Since the project began, Ellis, Wafiq, Nathan, Hester and their colleagues in class 3-4I have learned how to manage files, use spreadsheets and customise their machines' sound files and screen "wallpaper". Switching deftly between applications, their grasp of the technology is impressive and everyone concerned with the experiment is pleased with the progress.

The pound;60,000 project is being evaluated by a team from Warwick University and Tim Coulson, Lambeth education action zone's project director, is certain the findings will be favourable. He says: "We are not quite a year on, and already we have seen positive changes in the way children and teachers work. Motivation levels in pupils are very high and remain constant. We now need to concentrate on getting parents and families more involved in the project."

Ellen Butcher, at Newington Junior Foundation school in Ramsgate, is also keen to raise standards among her pupils. Seven of her Year 5 pupils were chosen to pilot its netBook scheme. The Kent pupils have had the machines for five months and are still excited about using them during literacy hour.

"We felt Brendan, James, Cecilia, Rebecca, Aaron, Natan and Chyna needed a bit of a push to improve their work," says Butcher. "They mainly use them to take down their spelling on the jotter for spelling tests and to compose creative writing. But they have also found them useful in history and other subjects that involve writing, and take them home for homework purposes."

The rest of the class have put their initial jealousy behind them and enjoy gathering around their classmates for some netBook lessons. Brendan is proud of being able to teach them something and is now confident with his spelling. "I used to copy down words wrongly from the board, but the spell-checker doesn't let me do that, and now my spelling is getting better and I am writing a lot more," he says.

Ellen Butcher encourages Brendan and his friends to use the Psion's spell-checker as she believes it is a boon for weaker spellers. She says it lets them build on their sentence construction skills to produce "great pieces of creative writing" and confirms there is an improvement in spelling test results.

But Jo McClarnon says it can make for some bizarre words. "While it can be useful, I discourage over-use of the spell-check option, because I want to see the children's mistakes so I can help them understand strategies for spelling."

The Psion netBook project is not without its drawbacks. Although they can withstand a drop of 1.5 metres, they are not indestructible and can be stolen. Children at Henry Fawcett and Newington Junior are encouraged to take their Psions home, but parents must collect and sign for them. Regrettably, few class 3-4I pupils have taken advantage of this offer.

Nevertheless, Henry Fawcett and Newington Junior are among a growing number of schools concerned that typical business-like laptops loaded with software, such as Microsoft Office, are heavy, expensive and not particularly suitable for pupils. Compact, versatile machines, such as the netBook, which is packed with software, including an encyclopedia, English and French dictionaries, and Rudyard Kipling's Jungle Book, are far more attractive. There is also no delay between turning the machine on and using it.

But all this is techno-babble to netBook owners. They are more excited about selecting a picture to illustrate the story they want to share with friends. Nathan used to dread class discussions, but his netBook has "made me feel important and better about what I can do, so I don't have a problem speaking in front of the class," he says.

Psion netBookPrice: If a school buys up to 100 cost is pound;640 each and if they buy more than 100, pound;600 each Email: vipul.palan@psion.com www.psion.com

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