Why teach 'computers' as a discrete subject when laptops allow pupils to practise their skills across the curriculum? Hilary Wilce meets the children who have fallen in love with computers
Marina Breeze has seen the future of learning. It's in her school. And she is amazed at other schools' blindness to the inevitable. The future of learning is laptops - every child working individually, in pairs, or in small groups, on small, portable computers that are so much part of their daily lives that the technology dissolves away into the general classroom environment, leaving no barriers between young learners and what they are learning.
"It's not that big, ugly box sitting like a wall in front of your face," says Marina Breeze. "It's not a great line of screens, so you can't move around, or see the person across from you, or show them what you're looking at. You no longer have to sit there thinking, 'Oh I'm working on the computer now'. You're not learning how to use computers, you're using computers to learn. Yet some schools are still building separate computer rooms. It's incredible."
Whitchurch middle school, in Harrow, where she is deputy head, has picked up laptop culture and is running with it. Three years ago it got involved in Anytime Anywhere Learning (AAL), a project being set up by computer giant Microsoft. Now Whitchurch has 17 of its own laptops, plus enough children who own one to enable whole classes to work on them at a time. It has a trained and enthusiastic staff, and has become an AAL mentor school, with Whitchurch teachers going out to coach other schools.
Pupils use their laptops for all kinds of work - history, geography, English, art - and in as many ways as their teachers can dream up. Anything that can be done on a worksheet can be done in a more sophisticated and lively way on a computer. Work can be honed to suit individual needs - smart children can start at a relatively advanced stage in a piece of work, while slower ones who need extra help can turn on the teacher's voice instructions. And teachers can put in prompt questions, to make pupils think about what they're doing.
Sarah Le Masurier, the school's computer curriculum co-ordinator, says:
"It's as if you're there with them, peering over their shoulder. And their focus is incredible. It's all so alive to them, and so fast and so exciting." Just four years ago, she had no idea what Windows was and needed help to log on to a computer. This year, she was south-east regional winner for the most creative use of ICT in a primary school in the Teaching Awards 2000.
As a result of her efforts, Whitchurch pupils have become more active learners. They are more motivated, and they think more deeply about what they're doing - willing to pose questions as well as answer them. They are more confident and articulate and have ICT skills way above the level expected for their age group.
And this isn't just their own assessment. Independent monitoring by Lancaster University has shown that Whitchurch pupils have made gains in spelling and in some aspects of writing. "It's been especially good for the special needs children," says Sarah le Masurier, recalling a time when she was working with a higher ability group in her class, only to turn round and find her special needs group had set up and started using the projector, and were setting quizzes on conjunctions. "They were being teachers for each other. If I hadn't seen it with my own eyes, I don't think I'd have believed it."
Most of the school's 360 pupils spend two to three hours a week on computers, including some full-size PCs, starting gently in Year 4, when they first come into the school, exploding at the start of Year 5, with an intensive week's ICT training, and becoming confident users in Years 6 and 7. The children casually manipulate data, talk about hyperlinks, and conduct their own research.
"It helps me a lot with the presentation," says Abid Mukhi, 12, who has his own laptop. "And I use it to do research. It's got Encarta and the Oxford, and at home I use the Internet."
So where did the money come from for this amazing leap forward? As one of 28 AAL pilots in the UK, Whitchurch has had help with training and software, but none with buying computers. And although the school is in a middle-class area, raising funds has not been easy. Businesses have been reluctant to donate to what they see as an already flourishing institution, and the school has had to scrape together cash from various sources.
Parents also proved reluctant to fork out pound;1,500 for something which they said could get lost, broken, stolen, or made redundant when their children moved on to other schools in Year 8. In fact some parents were so hostile they contacted their MPs and sent angry letters to the school, although most have been won round after seeing the benefits of the new approach, and an increasing number of them are buying their children laptops. About five to seven children in each class now have their own machines.
Perhaps surprisingly, none of the parents' fears has been realised. Not a single laptop has been lost, dropped or stolen - "The children are so protective of them, they carry them around in their arms like babies," says Sarah le Masurier - while most remain out of sight in school bags on the journey to and from school. Most teachers can deal with the simple technical problems, and a tight maintenance contract ensures more difficult ones are dealt with swiftly. The school uses a "laptop trolley" to move its own machines from class to class, while children can lock up their own in a cupboard in their classroom.
Neither has there been any obvious jealousy between the haves and the have nots. "I don't have one although I'd like one," says Daniel Griller, 10. "But the school has enough so you can usually get to use them as much as you need to." "We underestimate children," says Sarah Le Masurier. "Those who have their own are so generous with them, and willing to share."
Basic skills such as handwriting and spelling are still emphasised, and pupils show a sophisticated discrimination about how and when to use their computers. "Sometimes it's just easier to use a pencil and paper," says Kumar Shah, 12. And, he points out, computer spell-checkers often offer American spellings, so you always have to know how to spell things for yourself.
Whitchurch is still out in front in the laptop stakes, but more and more schools are joining the race. In just two years the number of UK schools participating in AAL has mushroomed from 28 to more than 400, and Microsoft anticipates that within three years most schools will have become involved in some way in portable learning. An AAL "online community" is about to be launched, and local authorities and groups of schools are banding together to start local "e-learning foundations" to help them fund and introduce the technology.
Nottingham launched the first of these in September, while others are being prepared in Birmingham, Blackburn and South Yorkshire. "We've seen a great shift in attitudes," says David Burrows, head of education at Microsoft UK, which started up AAL here following similar schemes in Australia and the US. "A lot of people said it would never work, but then they saw there was a huge difference between learners having to go to the technology, and the technology being a tool in their personal possession that they can use whenever and wherever they want to."
It's this portability and accessibility that allows teachers and pupils to meet a whole range of learning needs, says Don Passey, head of the Lancaster University monitoring team, which is about to publish its third report on AAL. The report says that laptop kids are almost a whole key stage ahead of their peers in acquiring many, if not all, ICT skills, and are showing improvements in areas such as data-handling in science, and speaking and presentation in modern languages.
"We've certainly seen how laptops can support the kind of children who might well become disaffected later - enabling them to take emotional control of their work by handling their own corrections and errors," says Don Passey.
But he cautions that laptops may not be for everyone. "The effects seem broadly positive, but we have seen a few children wanting to opt out of laptop groups." At Whitchurch, they see other obstacles to a laptop future. One is the continuing high price of machines, another is the less progressive attitude of most of the schools their pupils move on to. Then there is the traditional format of most exams, which means old skills - such as being able to write fast - still rule.
"This approach," says Sarah Le Masurier, "also means children have become much more demanding of teachers. They have the confidence to challenge you. They say, 'Actually, I don't agree with that last part'. They want to teach you. You all have to be willing to learn together. And maybe some teachers won't want to get into that."
Undaunted, the school is rapidly moving into the next phase of its pioneering journey - putting radio cards in the sides of the laptops, so pupils can access the Internet from wherever they happen to be. And when do they hope that will be?
"Oh," shrugs Marina Breeze casually. "I don't know. Probably in about three weeks."