A good way to spread computer skills is by handing out portable systems. Here are some of the newest and smallest on the market
DreamWriter IT Centerprise NB820
How do you reconcile calls for whole-class learning with an increased use of ICT in subject teaching? Twice this year, I have heard that an interactive whiteboard is the answer to this logistical conflict. The first "visionary" to voice this was Charles Clark at the BETT show in London; the second, Anthea Millett, at last month's Education Show in Birmingham.
No doubt there are moments when being able to share a display from a computer screen, or any other source, with a whole class is extremely useful - but surely there is more to the role of ICT in education? The question left unanswered by Clark and Millett is how do you give all pupils a personal experience of using ICT in subject classes, especially if all the class is doing the same thing? The answer: each pupil (and teacher) needs access to a portable computer.
There will never be enough money to provide every child with a portable. However, schools can build the acquisition of a class set into the school development plan. They can also share this strategy with parents, so that those who buy computers for their children can provide one which fits with the school's strategy. At the moment, there are machines which will do a good job for around pound;700.
The NTS DreamWriter IT is robust, with a child-friendly, lightweight, clam-shell design incorporating a moulded handle. It has network and online connectivity, a colour screen and good-sized keyboard. There is a keypad, but it can be used with a mouse. It also has dedicated programs such as data-logging software. Later this year, it will include the Sciencesoft graphic calculator. It uses Windows CE, rather than a full version of Windows, and does not have a CD-Rom drive. However, school-based management is helped by the Rol-a-Lab, a mobile trolley which stores and recharges up to 30 machines.
An alternative style of machine is the remarkably neat Centerprise NB820, which has the option of an 8-inch colour TFT screen. The keyboard is small and it has a tiny joystick, which would be hard for younger pupils, although an external mouse could be used. The NB820 has no internal floppy or CD-Rom drive - these are available as external extras. It does have full network and online connectivity, and is a full Windows machine.
The makers see the option of using the machine without the external drives as an advantage - it makes it easy to carry and, when needed, pupils can log on to the school network from home.
As well as the move towards lighter, cheaper systems, one clear improvement in current portables' capability is their network and online connectivity. Fully exploiting this will require a whole-school policy, so that pupils can use the network at school and home. They can store and retrieve projects, access specialist applications or data sources for homework, and print or submit work.
The Department for Education and Employment recognises that if pupils are to achieve the high standards we are striving for, the ability to work outside the school day will be a key factor. If they are to exploit the power of ICT to support personal achievement, pupils will need hands-on experience at school and home. Watching the teacher use the technology in front of the class is not enough.
Luckily, there are schools which have the wherewithal to devise models of ICT in subject teaching which empower pupils. Some schools already have a coherent home-school ICT strategy. It takes a vision more powerful than the installation of whiteboards in every classroom, as well as resources and careful planning to implement. Angela McFarlane
For years, portables have been in danger of falling foul of the Trades Description Act: portable in theory, but requiring stamina and strong arms in practice. Isn't a pair of scales one of the main things you need to judge a portable? If so, the new Lifebook from Fujitsu, in Microsoft's Anytime Anywhere Learning, project is a winner.
It weighs just over 1.1kg, but when the weight is cut down so far, you seriously question whether you need things like Psions or Windows CE machines.
The other factor is batteries - these are usually a joke. Most computer batteries last, if you're lucky, about as long as a soap episode. The really good news about this lithium battery is that it could survive a school day with sensible use.
Fujitsu's B110 LifeBook is neat, but is not a machine that will endure being saturated in jam or dropped off a tower block. Lifebooks come in many configurations with the B110 as the bottom of the range.
The basic machine I tested had a separate floppy disk drive and a device that fits on the back to enable access to ports to connect to other devices. If you want a modem or CD-Rom drive, you must obtain them separately. The software, Microsoft Office, is pre-installed.
My main difficulty was the keyboard. It is rather small. I am, however, willing to trade that off against the advantages: lightness, portability, speed and design.
It's not difficult to see teachers and students using this unobtrusive and quiet machine. It has enough capacity to carry all the work you need. In its stripped-down state (minus floppy drive and CD-Rom), you can store all the day's work on the hard disk. Back at home, you could plug in a full-size monitor and keyboard.
Others might criticise the number of separate parts - five including the charger. The basic machine is, however, a joy to use. Dimensions are 230mm by 170mm by 29mm. It also comes with a 233MHz Pentium MMX processor, 32Mb RAM and a 3.2Gb hard disk. Jack Kenny
Digital objects of desire are getting smaller. Weighing in at just 1.32kg is the Acer TravelMate 313T. This bantamweight contender is roughly half the weight of a conventional laptop, but offers full Windows.
Designed for mobile users needing a light, high-spec portable, the TravelMate is popular in schools in Microsoft's Anytime Anywhere Learning project. With stereo and microphone recordplayback, infra-red capability, CD-Rom and floppy drive, as well as integrated speaker and microphone, the TravelMate is a fully-fledged multimedia computer.
In its most basic configuration - without power transformer, external CD-Rom and floppy drives - the TravelMate could just about fit into the front compartment of a rucksack. Measuring 236 by 175mm by 36mm, the slim, tapered case boasts a Pentium 233MHz MMX processor, 32Mb RAM and a 3.2Gb hard drive.
Basically, it's the sort of specification you would have found in last year's state-of-the-art desktop model. It's more than sufficient computing power to handle applications such as Word and Excel, and can comfortably cope with the demands of multimedia encyclopedias. The colour screen (172mm x 130mm) offers excellent resolution. An internal modem also ensures 56k Internet connectivity.
Such highly engineered miniaturised technology inevitably involves compromises, the most obvious being its keyboard. Younger children may find the keys comfortable, but my podgy adult hands struck quite a few double keys. The function keys on the top row are even smaller. The claim of 2.5 hours for the Lithium battery is rather generous.
It may well be that weight and not battery life is the main consideration for school users. The Lancaster University evaluation of the Anytime Anywhere Learning pilot found that most pupils considered their laptops too heavy. Acer has been working with the Body Action Campaign to help rectify this.
The effective employment of laptops is dependent on them meeting a number of criteria: weight, build quality, technical specification and battery life. The TravelMate certainly meets the first three requirements, and the provision of sufficient power points in schools can cover for the fourth. Hugh John
Dreamwriter IT Price: pound;600 (ex VAT). Carry case pound;30 Tel: NTS 0121 687 8767 http:it.dreamwriter.com Centerprise NB820 Price: pound;695 (or pound;599 for students). Extras: additional 32Mb RAM pound;50; PCMCIA network card pound;95; external CD-Rom drive pound;75; external floppy disk drive pound;30 (prices exc VAT). From Centerprise.Tel: 01256 378 004 www.centerprise.co.uk B110 Lifebook Bundle price pound;1,259 (exc VAT): with 32Mb RAM; external floppy disk drive; external CD-Rom drive; 56k faxmodem (PCMCIA); MSOffice Pro; one year warranty and insurance; and rucksack. From RM. Tel: 01235 826000 www.rmplc.net Acer TravelMate 313T Price: pound;1,259 (ex VAT) includes external CD-Rom and floppy drives, carry case, three years insurance and phone technical support, one year warranty and software bundle. From Acer UK, Tel: 01753 487000 www.acer.co.uk The Body Action Campaign. Tel: 0181 682 2154 http:ds.dial.pipex.comtowncloseya57rsi.htm