14th April 2000 at 01:00
How to tame ICT's insatiable appetite for your school computers.

Dave Roughley starts his science lesson by burning a spoonful of sulphur. For the pupils it's a graphic introduction to how acid rain starts out. In similar lessons in all sorts of schools, the students go on to scour textbooks and library books for more facts.

Yet at Sawtry Community College, it's not books they're looking at - instead they're looking on the Internet for details from environmental agencies, pressure groups and scientists. To ease the class' quest Roughley has given them a set of Web pages and a miniwebsite on acid rain. They will put the pieces together with Microsoft Powerpoint.

Unfettered access to resources has opened up ways of teaching that would break backs in many schools: classes using worksheets on screens, drawing graphs with an Excel spreadsheet, and making slide show projects.

Today all sorts of everyday work happens on the computer. The change from paper to screens began when the school piloted Microsoft's Anytime, Anywhere Learning project and got a class of pupils a laptop each. Two years on, and Roughley's class seem entirely unfazed by the technology and being asked to present some research findings. Nor is he fazed that some have turned up without their laptops - those without find a partner and get on with it.

Brave decisions were needed. The school called on parents and asked them to fund their child's machine at the rate of pound;1 a day. They sought funds so that those unable to pay had a machine provided, and topped this up with money that could have been spent building an empire of computer suites joined by network cable.

Regardless of who pays, the school rents the machines and few people know which pupils got the freebies. With their plan to have 500 machines by September, this has clearly gone beyond a pilot scheme. The want to set up a charitable foundation to make their money go further, and this foundation might have corporate sponsors making "gift aid" donations and parents making deeds of covenant instead of paying rent. If the plan, based on a framework by Microsoft and the Arthur Anderson consultancy, works out the new charity will gain a tax break where every four parents who contribute will buy a needy child a free laptop.

Is it worth it? Science teacher Andy Johnson thinks so as it has unleashed more creativity. For example, he uses a spreadsheet to teach the relationship between force and mass. He tells of the surprise when he gave his laptop class two columns of figures and the single pointer that they had to draw graphs to find the answer.

"They looked at the relationship they had drawn as an Excel graph. They looked at the line of best fit and you'd hear them saying: 'Well look this one goes up and the other one goes up, but hang on a minute, it's multiply by ten so this is the relationship.' What surprised me was that they were coming out with this on their own. The more able spotted a number pattern and found the formula that fitted exactly with the science. They seemed to teach themselves. What you would normally tell the children at the end of a lesson in a didactic way, they had worked out for themselves."

It's finding successes that's encouraging progress. For instance, he has honed everyday office tools, like Word, to make worksheets that help children write word equations. They pick up his sheet over the radio network, and they do their equations by choosing best answers from drop-down menus on the page. It does the job well. Here, at Sawtry, they seem to have their use of computers sorted.

Roger Frost is a science and ICT consultant

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