Time to remove the behemoths;Opinion

8th January 1999 at 00:00
PC makers must be in ecstasy as schools spendthousands on badly designed tat, warns John Davitt.

A friend arrives unexpectedly and you realise he hasn't changed his clothes in 10 years. Do you welcome him in? Or ask him to freshen up and come back later? If we applied the same criteria to computers, we'd have sent them packing a long time ago to get a restyle and shrink.

Yet we are still welcoming these ugly behemoths into classrooms regardless of size, performance and ease of use. If it's called a computer, we'll have it and we'll shoehorn it into the learning environment regardless of the sacrifice in terms of working space and support.

Human interaction, which needs space, clear desktops and uninterrupted lines for eye contact, is squeezed to the edges. Schools are now spending millions of pounds on technology to tap into the National Grid for Learning, but many of them, because of their cash-starved culture, are cutting corners and ending up with second-rate technology that doesn't suit classrooms and will be difficult to support. They must think more carefully before making decisions.

Hardware sellers must be in ecstasy. They were sitting on a mountain of ageing kit and old cathode-ray monitors (yes, they haven't changed a lot since John Logie Baird) and suddenly schools can't take them off their hands fast enough. Sadly, there is no central support and guidance as to how we can integrate the computer in the classroom.

The British Educational Communic-ations and Technology Agency (BECTA) has around 60 staff working on managing learning grids and describes the merits or otherwise of different software packages, but provides no direct guidance at all on how to make it fit into today's classroom.

Yet there is a branch of academic study known as ergonomy which charts the interaction of humans and machines. Its message, however, isn't getting through to schools and local education authorities on how they might integrate computers and preserve space for all the other activities which a curriculum must contain, or even what colour the walls should be to promote effective learning (it's yellow by the way.) Even educational ICT companies miss the point and spend millions exclusively on software development. Surely nobody would claim that their PCs are the result of a careful study into how small children need technology. At a time when research on the brain tells us small children find oval shapes more comforting than square ones, we are filling classrooms with large square boxes - with mice too big for small hands and screens too high for small eyes.

We each need to have a vision for the learning environment and then see where the technology fits - not the other way around - and look at developments like flat LCD monitors.

They are only two to three inches deep, so they may be transported with ease or even hung on the wall. Yes, they are expensive (around pound;500), but we need to rethink and go for quality rather than quantity.

At a simpler level, hydraulic struts to hold monitors and mini-towers tucked away under the desk make a huge difference and give the desktop back to students. Learners need space.

Apple's iMac is a sign of change - cool, transparent colours and integration of screen and computer in one unit, ground-breaking UK design - it even comes with a built-in handle.

Yet even the iMac is large for primary. Imagine a half-size model - now you're talking.

Sony's new VAIO notebook computers could revolutionise portable computing - form follows function like a ferret. They are the size and weight of a small hardback book yet contain beautiful colour screen and high-quality speakers.

Thinner than an average paperback, they can capture and process video direct from digital movie cameras. Compare these to the current notebooks that give staff bulging eyes and distended shoulders.

Sony has proved that size doesn't matter just as long as it's small.

If information technology is to become part of our lives, we need to sculpt and colour it till it fits. Perhaps schools funding should specify 20 per cent for the classroom environment to prevent creating ICT ghettos with lots of kit but peeling walls.

After all, if you add computers to a poor environment, you just get a poor environment with computers.

John Davitt hosts a discussion group on Designing the New Learning Environments on www.wordroot.co.ukdesign

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