Swept by the tide of technology

20th November 1998 at 00:00
A school didn't want to spend money on training to no purpose. So it invested in lots of Apple eMates - and made all the staff hands-on, writes Maureen McTaggart

Liz Brown's view was partially obscured by lists of netball fixtures and odd pairs of sports socks, but the ever-present transluscent glow was forcing the PE teacher to acknowledge its existence. So far, she had managed to avoid any close encounters of the eMate kind, but now they were all over the place. Tolworth Girls school has become full of the things. E what? Well, an eMate is a simple networkable portable computer designed for the education market.

Introduced late last year, these laptops have achieved cult status among staff at the school in Surbiton, Surrey. The eMates are shaped like a Porsche with a coo,l semi-transparent green case, a small screen and a pen that doubles as a mouse. Teachers who would normally have had a seizure at the mere mention of information technology are now disciples of the power of ICT in general and the eMate in particular.

Although made by Apple, the eMate is not a Mac or PC. It is based on Apple's Newton MessagePad handheld computers, weighs a couple of pounds, runs for 24 hours on a rechargeable battery, snaps shut inside the clamshell housing, and fits into a briefcase. And even Homer Simpson could understand it.

Liz Brown, who is head of PE at Tolworth, says: "In the past, I wouldn't have dreamed of going anywhere near a computer and would hand over all my typing to the office staff. But the eMate is so attractive and easy to use that I now find it difficult to put it down."

Ms Brown and 19 of her colleagues were among the first of the school's 62 teachers to take part in a project designed to help staff develop their ICT skills and become mentors for the rest. Funded by the Learning Circuit, an organisation which involves the local Training and Enterprise Council and Roehampton Institute, the two-part Pounds 30,000 project started with 20 machines delivered a year ago in October - and another 42 arrived at Easter.

The basic bundle includes some decent software - a good word processor, with spell checking (but no word count), a spreadsheet, drawing package and a full contacts database and calendar. You get the Internet too, of course, with this handy travelling companion. It has email facilities and is capable of rudimentary Web surfing. And, finally, the eMate is multi-lingual - it can talk to Macs and Windows PCs, as well as drive a variety of printers.

Those chosen to be eMate pioneers were mainly departmental heads, most of whom had no desire to cruise the information superhighway. A few, however, were keen computer users, comfortable with the Internet and regular exploiters of its educational content.

Leased over four years, each eMate costs Pounds 450. But it is considered money well spent by Sue Haightman, the deputy head co-ordinating the project. "We were looking for the most cost-effective and least threatening method of upskilling teachers," says Ms Haightman. "To send a teacher off on an ICT course would normally cost between Pounds 200 and Pounds 250 a day by the time you pay for the course and for cover. This way, all we are spending is the equivalent of two days training."

Haightman stresses that the laptops have been bought for her teachers and not the pupils. She says many pupils share sleeping space with the latest in multimedia technology, and it is the pressure from them for teachers to use computers more that drove her to set up the project.

"Of course, a teacher can hand a machine over to a pupil to work on, but the primary aim is to help staff develop skills and encourage anyone with a particular expertise in an application to pass on that knowledge to colleagues," she says.

One teacher has discovered that he has been able to motivate a special needs pupil by allowing her to take the eMate home to do work for him. He says it's a bit like saying to someone: "Here is my new car - would you like to take it for a spin."

Think of a machine or an application and Frances McCarthy, a science teacher, has used it. But before the eMates arrived, her skills and talents had no impact on colleagues. Now staff are clearly chomping at the bit: ideas are beamed from one machine to another via infra-red links at weekly staff meetings. Collaboration has become the name of the game with many project ideas originating from these get-togethers.

"With access to the Internet at home I would often download materials to use with my classes. Now I can pass on relevant parts of this information to colleagues during our informal mentoring sessions," says McCarthy.

The wind of technological change has certainly blown a gale through the Tolworth staffroom. Ms Haightman has noticed that the eMates have changed everyone's attitude to ICT. "We have all become more open and active ICT learners. We all know that children are very happy to learn through play but, with adults, it's a different matter. What is remarkable about the eMate is that my colleagues feel they have been playing, and learning - and they don't mind at all."

Although Apple has discontinued Newton technology, eMates are still available to schools. Stocks are likely to continue well into next year, when Apple is due to launch its new portable for schools and home. Dubbed the eMac, it is thought to be an eMate-like machine using Mac technology.

For eMate sales, call Xemplar on 01223 724200

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