Small is beautiful

6th May 2005 at 01:00
In the quest for one-to-one computer access, Dudley Grid for Learning appears to have the issue firmly in hand...Jack Kenny reports

"We don't get enough access to technology," was the response Dudley Grid for Learning (DGfL) adviser John Davies heard from students when he did some research last year. "We need more access; in fact we want the same entitlement as teachers, the same as you. You don't have to take turns on the computer. You don't have to ask permission to use the computer. We want to make the decisions ourselves. When we want to use a computer, we want to be able to go and use a computer."

Dudley has a managed service for all its schools' technology. Supplied and managed by RM, the service lifts the burden of network management off the shoulders of the schools. Recently Dudley carried out a review of the first five years of the DGFL to see what the outcomes were and what could help developments over the next five years.

Davies outlines what he sees as a new problem. "Take a typical Dudley secondary school. They might have 250 PCs for a 1,000-student school.

Maximum engagement or active learning with technology would be for 25 per cent of the time. Take into account the curriculum, the timetable and the physical deployment. It means that kids get to the technology about 12 to 15 per cent of the time. That is not good enough. The solution has to be one-to-one access -100 per cent flexibility for 100 per cent of the people 100 per cent of the time." The vision is that every pupil and every teacher will have a handheld computer, or personal digital assistant (PDA)."

The students know that other technologies exist. "For far too long the kids had been expected to leave their culture at the school gates. We should explore that culture and not keep it at arm's length."

Davies talked to the companies who make this kind of technology. The only people who were really interested in the idea were PalmOne. An executive asked Davies what Dudley was going to do and what was needed. Davies gave a specification that would be suitable for teaching and learning. The Palm Zire 72 is very close to that. It has a Voice Memo recorder and a camera so students can record evidence of what they are doing. Bluetooth wireless networking is built in. Davies describes it as an affordable resource but some way from being the ideal resource. He also points out that the resourcing has come from Dudley and Palm. Eventually they would like to have 40,000 devices.

Davies does not hide the difficulties of the first year (the project began in 2004). "My head is on the block on this one and I will take the flak and I'll take the pain." And there has been pain. RM, manager of the Dudley network, was concerned about so many PDAs accessing the network.

Connectivity has been a problem, but a bridging solution allows work to be moved between the PDAs and the network.

Another issue has been what happens when the devices malfunction. In an ideal scenario a student would have a replacement in five minutes. Davies admits that they are a long way from achieving that.

At Milking Bank School, headteacher Richard Mason describes the impact. "We targetted the PDAs at a group of average children. The initial interest was fantastic. We decided to use the PDAs like an exercise book. We said to the children: 'If you think that you can use this machine during the school day then use it.' They go into the animations and they use them in science for problem solving: illustrating both the problems and the solutions. They beam work to one another, they beam work to the teacher. There is wireless connectivity and children have been able to access the internet, and staff often watch children in the playground or in the dinner queue take the PDAs out of their pocket and share material with each other. They have taken them home and worked with parents."

The interest from parents has been surprising. Commenting on the work at Wren's Nest Primary School, Davies says: "We have seen the green shoots of learning in communities that have been disengaged from learning. One of the conditions of having one of the devices is that you have to teach mum and dad to use it. Eventually, we would like parents to have these devices as they are not as threatening as conventional computers. With PDAs there is little or no learning curve."

Davies is optimistic about the future and so is Year 6 pupil Brett from Mount Pleasant Primary school: "I think the project is interesting because the computers are so small. I didn't realise that they could do so much.

They can write notes, calculate, record and playback voices, play games and loads more. You can also send things from one machine to another by beaming. It makes you want to come to school."

THREE STEPS TO ICT HEAVEN

John Davies identifies three stages that teachers have to go through to take advantage of ICT in learning:

* Adaptation: learn with the technology and replicate the things that you have always done

* The enhancing stage: tap in to the opportunities that technology provides

* Accelerating learning: where innovative, creative, risk-taking teachers understand how all the technology works in learning The technology Palm Zire 72 Handheld Computer Intel 312 MHz, 32Mb Ram, 1.2 megapixels camera Price: Pounds 179.55 RM, www.rm.com

Tel: 08709 086969 (primary); 089709 086868 (secondary)

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