Size matters in County Durham, where a pilot project to install DreamWriter laptops in schools has won plaudits from everyone involved. Kevin Berry reports
You don't have to share it, you don't have to wait till someone finishes," says Rachel Laidler, and her friends at Rookhope Primary are quick to agree.
They are each working on a DreamWriter laptop. Other children are sitting in front of desktop machines, so each pupil has a machine. The maths lesson is buzzing along. No child is having to wait for someone else to finish and since everyone is busy with similar tasks the teacher is readily available.
Rookhope Primary, a village school in the Weardale landscape of County Durham, has ten DreamWriter machines. Each is named after a hurricane. Indeed all computers at Rookhope have carried the name of a hurricane since the days of the first BBC machine.
The DreamWriters are chunky and friendly enough to inspire affection but could not be mistaken for playthings. They can send email, are network ready and have pocket editions of Word and Internet Explorer.
DreamWriters have been placed in schools like Rookhope as part of a four-year information and communications technology (ICT) programme throughout County Durham. Funding comes from the National Grid for Learning and teaching materials from the programme are filed on a website.
Many school websites are up and running, digital camera technology and video conferencing are being used with studious purpose and thanks to the DreamWriters all pupils can be on-task. In its first year, the project took in 43 schools. Now in the second year, a further 102 schools are benefiting. Rather than spread resources thinly, the programme is centred on clusters of schools, with more joining each year until 2002, when all of Durham's schools will be included.
Laidler and her friends are in Rookhope's computer room. One or two computer sophisticates in the class get irritated with the DreamWriter's touchpad but when the infant class come in they use the pad with ease. There is no hesitancy - they use the DreamWriter as they would any other familiar piece of equipment.
"They are nice machines," six-year-old Hannah Broadbent tells me. "I come and work on 'Lewis'. We do writing with Mrs Connolly. Using a pencil takes me a long time. I can do the words quickly on Lewis."
Acting headteacher Carole Connolly tells me that just as her children have literacy and numeracy hours they have a timetabled ICT hour, though it usually only lasts 50 minutes.
"One part- time teacher retired a couple of years ago. We took a look ahead and decided we couldn't afford to replace her," Connolly explains. "Using ICT was a way to get around the problem so we made the decision to invest. The children ae in an isolated rural situation, and it has always been our policy to bring the world to them. Computers do help with that."
Nathan Parker, who teaches the junior class, loves the portability of the Dream-writers. "You can get 20 of them for the price of ten PCs and they will all be used," he says. (A package of 20 mid-range T400 Dream-Writers costs just pound;2,200 until March 31.) "There aren't lots of peripherals and add-ons to bother with. We can take them into the classroom and everyone has one. We have used the infrared port to transfer information from one machine to another and we've recorded the children's voices."
At Greenfield Community School, Newton Aycliff, older pupils are as enthusiastic about DreamWriters. "They're great," says Kelly-Ann Bridgwater, one of a group of GCSE maths students busy preparing databases. "With a normal PC I've got my head back looking at the screen but the DreamWriter is much more comfortable." She adds: "I know what it can do - sometimes all the extra stuff on PCs is confusing. And they're quick; you switch them on and you start. When you use a PC you have to wait for it l-o-a-d-i-n-g!" Her classmates groan in agreement. All say they enjoy the privacy of DreamWriters, and don't mind making mistakes if they do not appear on screens for others to see.
Greenfield's ICT co-ordinator Ron Connolly praises the machine's simplicity but recognises its limitations. "DreamWriter is a brilliant concept but the pocket versions of applications can be frustrating," he says. "For instance, if the children are using Excel there is no charting facility. Or they can browse the Internet but can't print from it. Printing means converting to floppy, but that's more to do with the operating system - Windows CE2.1 - than the DreamWriter itself. Children are limited as to how far they can take a piece of work, but they can get on with the nitty-gritty of their task."
But he adds: "Kids love having their own machine. They know the DreamWriter is theirs for the lesson, and when they work on their own they take that bit more care" A bonus for Ron Connolly's school is that the few remaining computer-phobic teachers have been taking DreamWriters home "to make their mistakes on and take some risks".
And although DreamWriters are being used regularly by maths and special needs students, their portability has generated interest from other teachers, particularly scientists and geographers; students from Greenfield often go on field trips to the Lake District and the next party will take DreamWriters with them.
A computer in every rucksack? Bill Gates never predicted that.
NTS Computer Systems:BETT Stand L40L45 Tel: 0800 731 7221 County Durham's ICT website is at httpatschool.eduweb.co.uk scitech2