Schools are now making better use of IT. Roger Frost finds which products are getting top marks from teachers and managers.
The fascinating thing about technology? Discovery. You can't tell how useful something with a plug on is going to be. Like Christmas presents past - the electric toothbrush and the ice-cream maker - there are things you would not be without and things that you store away. 1996 was no exception.
Some say that a laptop with a CD-Rom is an extravagance, and for some it is. But in the schools that got them free in a Government research project, I'd wager there's enough coveting to hint that they are useful. For taking technology to the people - in the staffroom or the block across the playground - these are useful. For doing your work anywhere, as a German on a beach holiday once showed me, they score again.
More discoveries: this year many die-hard Apple Mac users discovered a Windows PC - the computer for which everything seems to be happening just now. For ages, and rightly, they had evangelised a machine that you don't have to tinker with, but now they'd bought a PC. It seemed a crazy thing to do, like changing religion mid-life, so I asked, were they converted now? "No, it isn't that I've seen the light, it's that I can feel the heat," came the reply. Was it easy? "Not really," he said. "Like a first driving lesson, the first hour was hell."
After years of buying BBCs, Nimbuses and Acorns, schools started to lean towards PCs, leading a few IT trade pundits to discover the smugness that comes with hindsight.
One idea, not worth blowing a gasket over, was that this was evidence that education has vacillated all along, and never known what it was doing. Actually, it's quite funny because when you talk to those people who decided to buy this or that, you soon find out that, like the Apple defectors, they knew exactly what they were doing and nothing could budge them from it.
This was also the year when lots of people discovered the Internet. Many found the potential for communicating and collaborating very exciting and some developed surfing sickness - an attention disorder where you click all over the globe and linger nowhere.
Others were more focused - they stopped and read pages, knowing that someone else was paying the telephone bill. The good news is that last year's hype - that exciting graphics and sound could be shot across the Internet - is just starting to be realised, says John Wardle, who manages the science content of the Department of Trade and Industry's Schools OnLine project.
He says: "Though we're still awaiting the digital revolution, Internet pages and browser software are growing up and making the hype come true. My hope for next year is that we'll see more relevant 'content' and that more people will get Internet access at a reasonable cost."
For Anne Bunce, science curriculum adviser in Hillingdon, the year's IT discovery was seeing her children work together on a CD-Rom. The children, aged four and six, could work through a Dorling Kindersley title aimed at an older audience and still dig out useful information. A title from Br?derbund, Maths Workshop got them using fractions and saying things such as, "we can get another sixteenth if we break up one of those eighths", with the youngest nodding agreement.
Anne Bunce's debriefing says that CD-Rom isn't a plug-n-learn technology. "What makes it work," she says, "was that the computer could talk to the children, but it needed some priming and direction from me."
The talking side of technology also excited Ivan Mykytyn, development manager at the Scottish Council for Educational Technology (SCET). He cites today's powerful computers as the factor in making voice recognition, where you can talk to your computer, a reality. He feels that we are very close to the day when we can dispense with a keyboard.
"The impact for those with learning difficulties would be immense, and difficulties such as dyslexia, for example, would simply cease to exist, " he says. And maybe they'll not lock you away for phoning home to chat to the computer.
Doug Dickinson, an advisory teacher in Leicestershire, lauds Clicker Plus as one of those rare examples of software that is "wide open for development". Like an overlay or Concept keyboard, Clicker has a panel of words or pictures which pupils can click on to do some writing. But as Mr Dickinson explains, the panel is on the screen and there is no extra kit or configuration hassle. He says: "If you're using IT to communicate, this allows you to do it quickly and slickly. You can be talking to the pupils about the writing they are going to do, getting the vocabulary from them and setting up a panel of words on the fly."
Coincidentally, as he spoke, Clicker Plus was picking up a coveted award from the British Computer Society.
Colin Geatrell, Dorset's IT team leader, has two finds to share. One is a portable storage device called a Zip drive. It fits into a bag, is light and he can take pre-installed software from place to place to run on another person's machine.
He says: "IT co-ordinators have been using it to carry a software toolkit around school, to update the software on machines or carry files between home and school. It is easy and cheap, and it beats carrying large pieces of metal and glass (computers) around."
The other discovery is a page scanner, which at under Pounds 100, allows him to take a page of print and turn it back into text he can edit.
While the technology has been around for years, Colin feels the low price will help schools to make better use of documents. "It's not the same quality as a big scanner, but it is technology that does a nice job, cheaply, efficiently, and when you need it. With it I can even send faxes from my desk."
This year's digital cameras, now produced by all the big manufacturers, come in for praise from Mike Bostock, IT adviser in Redbridge, London. The attraction is that they give instant results, the running costs are virtually zero and the picture quality is very acceptable. You also don't need to take a machine apart to use one, as it plugs straight into almost any machine from a PC to an Acorn. With such a tool, Mike Bostock believes that schools can develop their graphics work. "It opens a big door, so instead of originating pictures with drawing programs, schools can use the camera to produce quality work. And that is taking our imagination further," he says.
Over the course of the next year, a dozen Redbridge schools will take pictures of their environment, do projects on local history and build up topic resources folders with the help of a scanner. "We've always known that those with the best marks have the best sources of information. Here, we are simply using IT to collect together the material we feel is most relevant to the curriculum. " The project in Redbridge is no doubt one of many where playing with IT isn't the aim of the exercise.
Encouragingly, it's a point observed by IT inspector Mike Treadaway, whose own snapshot of schools in South Glamorgan hints at a change in approach. "I think we're beginning to see IT used properly," he says. "Teachers are saying that we will use IT because it will help kids write better, rather than saying that they will practise this or that feature. Or they're saying, we got some useful information from a multimedia CD, instead of saying that kids have learned to use databases."
Now there's a revolutionary idea for the new year - take IT seriously, but put it second.
Broderbund's Maths Workshop CD-Rom, Pounds 25. Page scanner brands: Microtek, Logitech, Primax, Sicos, Esselite Camera brands: Casio, Kodak, Fuji Voice recognition: IBM's OS2 Warp 4 system uses voice recognition Voice-Pad Pounds 79 From Talking Technologies Tel: 0171 602 4107Schools OnLine Science: http:www.shu.ac.ukschoolsscis