The home computer is where children feel they learn best, so schools are investing in a whole new generation of portable technology. Stephen Manning reports
It won't be long before large, sophisticated ICT suites in schools will look as outmoded as the set of Star Trek, as personalised learning leads school technology into pupils' pockets and out of the school gates. Jim Knight, the schools minister who is responsible for technology, last month announced the Government's commitment to universal home access to technology for all schoolchildren, as well as unveiling plans for a home access task force, bringing together figures from government, industry and the third sector, charitable, voluntary and community organisations.
"About a fifth of schools have begun the process, and are allowing laptops to be taken home, buying mobiles instead of desktop computers and even withdrawing their ICT suites in favour of portable technology," says Valerie Thompson, e-Learning Foundation chief executive, who will sit on the task force. "We're looking at a reversal in thinking - schools organised around the interests and need of learners rather than vice versa."
It is a mammoth undertaking. The e-Learning Foundation says that 30 per cent of children - about two and a half million - do not have internet access at home at all.
This is based on calculations from the annual family spending survey, published last month by the Office of National Statistics. But the benefits of home access are underlined by new research commissioned by the Department for Education and Skills, suggesting that primary pupils spend more time on computers at home than at school and that they learn more that way, because they are doing what interests them.
The survey, Children Learning at School ICT, was carried out by Intuitive Media, which runs SuperClubsPlus, a protected online learning community of more than 100,000 children aged seven to 12 in 6,000 schools. Here, the pupils build websites, communicate with each other via forums, games and competitions. They are nominated by their teachers and the only adults involved are the site's mediators.
SuperClubsPlus was launched as GridClub in 2001 and is funded by a paid subscription per child. A secondary version for 11 to 14-year-olds, GoldStarCafe.net, was launched last July. "The DfES approached us because it was working on the personalisation agenda but had no evidence of how kids like to learn," says Robert Hart, Intuitive Media's strategic director. The pupils were surveyed anonymously on the forums.
Asked about their attitudes to learning with computers, 76 per cent thought they learned better with technology at home than at school. More than 80 per cent said they would contact their teacher from home if they could, and 78 per cent could identify skills picked up from playing games.
But the school experience was limited. Just over half of the pupils used a school computer at most once a week, for an average of 30 minutes. The survey calculates each child's access to technology at school at 19 hours a year, roughly a tenth of total school time.
The survey suggests that a number of children want to learn at their own pace. Thirty per cent said they wanted to work faster than their fellow pupils, and 42 per cent wanted harder work than they were doing.
"Schools have to acknowledge that a lot of learning takes place outside the school," says Robert. "Teachers will never get ahead of the kids in gaining these skills, and so should adapt. They might set a task, but let the kids decide how they approach it."
One school that is taking this kind of approach to heart is Capel Le Ferne Primary, a small semi-rural school near Folkestone in Kent. All 33 pupils in Class 5 have been given educational digital assistants (EDAs), newer versions of personal digital assistants (PDAs) for school use. These are used in class and also at home via SuperClubsPlus.
"With these devices they are accessing the internet, writing a lot more e-mails, and doing things such as collaborative story writing," says James Blomfield, the school's ICT co-ordinator. "I still mark books and make comments, but I am also trying to put as much feedback online as I can, so I can help kids after hours or at weekends if necessary."
The technology has helped one pupil, Christopher Thomas, 10, to keep up with lessons while regularly visiting London to perform in musicals. He is in Mary Poppins, alternating with five other boys playing the child lead, Michael. The theatre company provides a tutor on his London visits, but the EDA has helped him keep up with his work.
"It's a lot easier because I'm not carrying round lots of paper," he says.
"With maths, I'm getting to use Excel and PowerPoint."
The cost of the handhelds is around pound;15,000, 60 per cent of which came from the Parent Teacher Association and a deal with the suppliers. The school is discovering that the new technology is making a fundamental difference to the way learning operates. James says: "It gives us new opportunities and challenges, and you can't just stretch to fit. It changes the relationship between pupil and teacher. We can't just use the normal methods - we have to reinvent them."
SuperClubsPlus (seven to 10-year-olds) School day package is pound;3.50 per pupil per year, Home School is pound;6.50. (www.superclubsplus.com).
Prices double for GoldStarCafe (www.goldstarcafe.net)